Issue in Focus: Talking Sex - Issues Amongst Young People in Bangladesh - Tanya Huq Shahriar
Tanya Huq Shahriar
In making the important transition from childhood to adulthood, it is necessary for young people to acquire the knowledge and develop the attitudes and skills to help them participate and find a place for themselves as members of the household and the larger community. To do this, they need to gain experience in decision making, assess risks and consequences of their decisions and actions, as well as interact and communicate with peers, sexual partners and adults. Young people especially of low-income communities such as in Bangladesh are vulnerable to risk factors that affect their reproductive and sexual health and well-being. It is basically the lack of information and counseling and the shortage of programs that focus directly on sexuality and sexual behaviours that increase this risk and drive young people to risky behaviour.
Working for a leading NGO in reproductive health in Bangladesh, the Marie Stopes Clinic Society, gave me a different perspective on the issues of sexuality and health in a country like Bangladesh. Working with young people is my passion and interest. Wherever I went, in all the classes and socio-economic strata (upper, middle and lower strata, as it is known in my country) a number of things kept striking me – sex is a terribly taboo subject in my culture even after marriage; young people are engaging in premarital sex more and more these days especially with the advent of the global cable culture; and, there is a terrible lack of access to information about sexuality and reproductive health related issues in Bangladesh.
Even in the rural and urban areas amongst the lower socio-economic groups it is still common for girls to get married off by the time they are 15 years old, without even a minimum knowledge of sexuality, reproductive health, family planning and the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases. This makes them more vulnerable to spending their lives in the pain of battling sexual and reproductive problems and not even knowing who to go to for proper counseling and treatment.
I remember my own adolescent days and how I was always given the impression that sex and sexuality were not good things to talk or ask about. In fact the first time I asked my mother what a condom was her guilty reaction and immediate change of subject made me feel really bad. My friends and I discovered the forbidden pleasures of sex through secretly watching porn and reading magazines and experiencing the changes in our own bodies as we grew older. But we had no one to ask questions to and no one to advise us. Looking back on those years – the sheer proscriptions against accepting the normal changes in my body and repressing my sexuality – made me realize how easy it was for young people to make inappropriate and even dangerous choices as I had seen many of my friends do. With this in mind, taking the help of a medical specialist on sexuality and reproductive health, I started a web-based email column tagged on to the organizational website. The address was firstname.lastname@example.org and it was hosted on the Marie Stopes website. Marie Stopes had already launched programs on reproductive health with young people in the slums. Now the organization wanted to raise awareness amongst higher-income urban adolescents and young people on sexuality and reproductive health to enable healthy and informed reproductive and sexual lives. The email column was basically like an agony aunt column that a lot of magazines run; the difference was that it was online and it focused on young people and sexuality. This was quite unique in Bangladesh. We also advertised informally in cyber cafes and educational institutions as I really wanted this to work as an information and sharing platform for young people to discuss a very important subject in their lives and maybe help them to make the right decisions.
The column began in June 2003 and ran till the end of 2004. Though we were a bit unsure of what the response would be, from the second week onwards the mails and queries started pouring in. We would receive about 25 queries each week. The majority of them were from young men aged 19 to 30 years. The most common query was regarding erectile dysfunctions or in their words ‘what is the safest amount of time one can get it up and last during sex so that we are not termed weak’. It seems that the biggest worry amongst the young men was whether their sexual organs were large enough and whether they could hold on and satisfy their partners and future wives long enough. It made me realize again how great the lack of sex education and information is in my country and how in many cases these young men just wanted to talk with and be reassured by someone. Where medical help was sought I consulted with my colleague, the doctor, and in certain necessary cases we recommended a visit to Marie Stopes clinics for specialized and confidential treatment.
Only about five percent of the queries were from young women, again proving how difficult it is for them to open up and talk to someone. Most of these were from young women about to embark on a sexual relationship (within or outside of marriage) and wanting to know about availability of contraception and also ways to pleasure their partners. One particularly poignant email was from an 18 year old who was about to embark on her first sexual relationship with a young man she felt she was serious about, and she wanted to talk about the misgivings and confusions she felt. I tried responding to her as I would my own sister, especially focusing on the issues of safer sex, HIV and STIs. Working on this email service made me realize also that how really uninformed young people were about the risks of unprotected sex and STIs and we started to talk about that too to some of our ‘regulars’. It was also immensely gratifying to receive thankyou notes from some of the young people who we had managed to help or just reassure.
In an often rigid culture like Bangladesh it is difficult to arrive at a balance between talking about safe and healthy sex and at the same time not being accused by parents and guardians of ‘encouraging sexual promiscuity’. Enabling access to sexuality information, contraceptives, family planning products and including these in the policies for young people is all part of providing opportunities for reproductive and sexual health and well-being. It seemed that by talking to the young people through email and giving them proper advice we could start in a small way to provide them with information and thereby ensure their right to good health – with a perspective based on the right to information rather than one focused on abstinence and cultural and religious taboos.
Tanya Huq Shahriar has been working in the field of development in Bangladesh for several years and is currently on the Communications team of ActionAid Bangladesh, a leading international NGO. She received her MA in Social Anthropology from the School of Oriental and Africal Studies (SOAS), University of London and has worked on reproductive health, human rights and gender.