Alice* was 17 years old when she discovered that she was pregnant. She was in a steady relationship and had a sexual relationship with her boyfriend. Pregnancy was the least bit of concern for Alice and her guy amidst their day to day lives of being a teenager. However, on discovering the pregnancy, both their worlds came crashing down. Alice plucked up the courage and went to a government hospital to get advice on terminating the unwanted pregnancy. She only had her best female friend, who was also 17 years old, to accompany and support her.
Chaithra* was just a few weeks short of turning 18 years old. When she discovered that she is pregnant, she did not wait for weeks to turn 18 and then get medical help. She immediately reached out to a well reputed clinic that provides medical and surgical termination of pregnancies. They did not ask for her ID proof and she had covered up the fact that she was still not yet a major. However, within a few days, her parents confronted the organization and accused the doctor of influencing their daughter -a minor- to get an abortion. The organization now makes it mandatory to show ID proof to get abortion services.
Love, Sex and Adolescence:
Every person who has passed through adolescence knows that those years are not just about the vanity of wanting to look good, but also years of wanting to get noticed, to be admired and to be loved. A sneaked love letter or a Priya Warrier style wink from an admirer can get hearts racing during those giddy years of adolescence. The boring school lectures are a quality time to daydream about a future where you and your love interest are romancing away like the hero and heroine of the latest movie you had watched. Everything goes well until you get hit by a chalk piece thrown at you by the teacher. Everything goes well until your parents discover that you are in a relationship with a person they do not approve of. Everything goes well until you discover your partner or you are pregnant.
The Adult World & Adolescence:
India has numerous laws in place to ensure that harsh punishments are meted out to perpetrators of violence, sexual offences against children including the adolescents. What many of these laws, especially the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, does not take into account is the agency of a child or an adolescent. Matters like consent, sexuality are clearly matters of adults and strictly adults alone, as apparent in these laws. It seems adolescents are living in a bubble wrap and only when they hit the golden number of 18, they emerge as a person capable of giving consent, taking consent and having a sexual life. Till then their bodies and minds are oblivious to sexuality! At least that is the impression given by all these existing laws which clearly does not acknowledge adolescent sexuality.
SOS messages to Hidden Pockets Careline:
Careline services run by the Hidden Pockets is the first ever Whatsapp counselling service in India for the youth on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights. Occasionally, the Careline do get cases where a distressed adolescent is seeking help to know about abortion and where to get an abortion. However, with the POCSO Act in place, Hidden Pockets hands are tied down to offer any direct help. In these cases, the viable solution for Hidden Pockets is to connect the adolescent to a network of NGOs working exclusively for adolescents.
Aisha Lovely George, Executive Coordinator and Sexual and Reproductive health Counsellor at Hidden Pockets, who is also an Enfold India certified peer educator, says, “All the adolescents who have reached out to the Careline were very scared about the situation they were in. In their anguished frame of mind, they can get very guarded about giving any details, even about the SRHR crisis they are in.”
The usual portrayal of adolescents being irresponsible, careless and/or naive and ignorant do not go well with Aisha. Based on her extensive work with adolescents, she holds the opinion that adolescents are far more responsible than what the adult world can give them the credit for. She points to the fact that even adults who are in their 20’s and 30’s are very uncomfortable in approaching Hidden Pockets and healthcare service providers for an abortion, but adolescents pick up the courage and approach the necessary authorities for intervention, even at the cost of getting entangled in the POCSO initiated by the doctors who handle their cases.
“It takes time and patience to earn their trust. And only after they strongly feel that we are trustworthy, they open up to us. And once they open up, it’s a downpour!” says Aisha. She strongly feels that these adolescents were dying to talk to someone to unburden themselves of the stress they were in. And at Hidden Pockets, these adolescents are given an empathetic and non-judgemental ear. But the help ends there as Hidden Pockets can intervene directly only for adults.
Adolescents and the big big world of internet:
Hidden Pockets and Hidden Pockets Collective, both heavily use technology to make information on sexual and reproductive health, relevant and relatable to the youth. While Hidden Pockets Collective focuses on advocacy works, Hidden Pockets works as a constant presence to help the youth in accessing safe, legal, affordable and non-judgemental healthcare services on sexual and reproductive health.
The social media platforms and emails are the portals through which the youth make their first contact with Hidden Pockets. Athira Purushothaman, Digital Advocacy Manager at Hidden Pockets says, “the adolescents are very much worried about their privacy.” She explains that the taboos and cultural disapprovals which are associated with anything sexual about adolescents in our country, make them feel that they are always at risk of being discovered and humiliated. It is only because of the fact that Hidden Pockets is a safe space, and respects their autonomy and privacy that they come to Hidden Pockets in a large number. “Irrespective of the courage they have shown in taking charge of their sexual and reproductive health, they always say that they have done something wrong by being sexual,” notes Athira based on her interactions with the adolescents on digital platforms.
Jasmine Lovely George, Founder, Co-ordinator of Knowledge Production at Hidden Pockets Collective, says, “adolescents do not trust the state. When they come to Hidden Pockets instead of the state, it is very loud and clear that something is not right with the state.” Stressing on the problematic POCSO, Jasmine elaborates that an adolescent girl who is outside the parental approval of her own sexuality becomes in fact the subject of the state!
The world of the internet is often the safe space for the adolescents to feel connected, heard and supported. In an offline world where they can be judged and made to feel lesser, it is the social media platforms that offer comfort and solace. Also with search engines, churning out information on things that they want to know, adolescents who have access to technology, are far adept in understanding sexuality. However, the flip side of these is that not all adolescents can discern what is right and what is wrong in the sea of net information. Also, not all adolescents are safe from lurking sexual predators in the net world.
Athira says, “Alternative approaches, such as age verification, which is as strict as getting a Voter ID card, are very much needed in the tech spaces to prevent the adolescents from entering certain online spaces or accessing certain information.” She, however, maintains that no adolescents should be barred from the larger ecosystem of the internet as they rely heavily on tech to empower themselves through the diverse support networks.
Laws to Protect or to Punish?
At the Karnataka consultation on ‘Rights Based Approach to Child Marriage’, co-organized by CLPR (Centre of Law and Policy Research) and CPR (Centre for Reproductive Rights), on March 9, 2019, there were first hand accounts from people and organizations that work for adolescents. From the anecdotes shared, it was clear that laws which came into existence with an intent to protect the adolescents are in fact punishing the adolescents, irrespective of the contexts.
POCSO being misused
Ashika Shetty (Enfold, CWC member) brought to light how POCSO can be misused to settle personal scores between families. She narrated an incident where a family pressed charges against a 21-year-old man for sexually assaulting their daughter. It later emerged that both the young man and the girl were in love and looking forward to getting married when the girl turns 18. However, her parents did not approve of their relationship as he belonged to a lower caste and disliked his family. And thus they manipulated the POCSO law to put the man behind the bars.
Naivety and law
K. Raghavendra Bhat (UNICEF Child Protection Project) narrated an incident which showed how the Prohibition of Child Marriage (PCMA) Act and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act can act against naive people who are not aware of the laws and who only had best interests of their children when they solemnised the marriage. A couple with their respective parents from a North Karnataka village visited the Udupi Krishna temple to pray for the health and well being of their expecting first born. The pregnant wife developed some health problems and she was hospitalized. The doctor on taking case history realized the woman was only 17 and he alerted the police. Soon the police and the associated officers for child rights and welfare got involved. The parents of both the couple were at a loss for words and all they could do was break down in helplessness. The couple too were at their wit’s end with all the sudden influx of law and order in their otherwise blissful marital life. The officer narrated how it was a complex spot for him to be in, as none of the parties involved had no clue about the various laws and all they wanted was a happily married life.
Are Laws Alone the Way Forward?
Jasmine points to the inconsistencies in the state’s approach to adolescent sexuality.
Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK) launched by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has provisions for adolescents to get help from the Adolescent Reproductive Sexual Health (ARSH) Clinic. The ARSH provides counselling on sexual & reproductive health issues. However, the state does not have any definitive law that validates adolescent sexuality. Under the existing laws, an adolescent can be prosecuted for having any sexual act, be it a mere kissing or sexual intercourse, with another adolescent, irrespective of them both engaging in it consensually.
The evolving capacities of adolescents and their autonomy have little value under the existing laws. Consensual sexual activities/ sexual exploration of adolescents can turn around and be treated as matters of prosecution. The punitive nature of the laws refuses to treat adolescents as juveniles in conflict with the law.
Aisha suggests, “POCSO is valuable when really an adolescent is sexually exploited. They need to be made aware that such laws exist so that they know whom to approach for help when they are sexually abused. However, an overarching application of the law will only deter the adolescents from getting the right information, advice and help for their sexual and reproductive health.”
Jasmine says, “The laws governing juvenile justice are far more progressive than POCSO and such an approach is needed when it comes to adolescents.” She strongly believes that restorative justice and not punitive measures should be the way forward. The existing laws such as POCSO do not take into account the scarring and trauma that an adolescent undergoes due to its punitive nature. And the reality is that adolescents can be in love, can have sexual exploration, and can even elope.
At Hidden Pockets and Hidden Pockets Collective, all the team members stress the need to have Comprehensive Sex Education (CSE), not just for adolescents but also for parents to dismantle cultural taboos, shame and honour. The team also believes that this education should also expand to the training of lawyers and judges such that they understand the contemporary nuances of adolescent sexuality and technology. As for consent, the discussions at the policy and advocacy levels should not just be about the age of consent, but also what it means to give consent and what it means to take consent.
*names changed to protect the privacy
Dr. Nishitha Aysha Ashraf is Programme Associate for SAAF Project at the Hidden Pockets Collective. She completed her B.A. Journalism & Communication (2010) and Bachelor of Dental Surgery (2015) from Manipal, Karnataka. She has covered the Nipah outbreak in Kerala during her stint as Health Reporter with The News Minute (2018). The reportage furthered her interest to be a key player in public health/ community health. Her internship and work at SOCHARA – Society for Community Health Awareness, Research and Action (2019) was instrumental to learn more about the People’s Health Movement. She is keen on exploring the SRHR issues of Kerala, especially those amongst the Muslim and Christian communities.