By Abhiram Roy, campaigner at Amnesty International Nepal.
“I was amazed to see people talking easily about condoms,” says Sagar Budhathoki from youth peer education network Y-PEER Nepal, about his first sexual and reproductive rights training session a few years ago. “In one of the sessions there was a demonstration, and I was shy touching the condoms, and everybody laughed. I didn’t even know what reproductive health was.”
Sagar, a 26-year old student from Lalitpur, Nepal, has come a long way since then. Today he is a regional co-ordinator on sexual and reproductive health and rights issues for Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal.
As Amnesty launches My Body, My Rights – a new global campaign on sexual and reproductive rights – I talked to Sagar about TV condom ads, the upheaval of puberty, and why young people have a crucial role to play in developing sexual and reproductive health policies.
Sex is taboo
The words sex or sexuality are not freely spoken in Nepal, or easily shared with teachers or even between friends: it’s taboo. “Young people’s shyness is a barrier that holds them back from getting information,” Sagar says.
“It takes time to open up,” Sagar explains. “First, it’s the shyness: young people are embarrassed to share with their families and school teachers. Second, they don’t know about their bodies. From 10 to 19, a boy or girl goes through physical and emotional changes. They are vulnerable.”
Nepal has very few information centres or clinics where young people can talk freely about sex or sexuality, and related issues like safe abortion, family planning, sexually transmitted infections, health and discrimination. Many young people – particularly girls and young mothers – experience severe health risks, simply because they lack information. They are entitled to get it from the state, which must guarantee sexual and reproductive rights for everyone, but that often doesn’t happen.
Women and girls labelled second class
Reproductive health problems are not taken seriously in Nepali society. Women and girls are labelled second class, and health facilities are not sensitive to their needs. For example, when they get a chance to take a break from work at noon and go to a clinic they often find the health centre closed. Or it’s too far away – a one day walk for many women in Nepal’s often harsh rural environment. And many simply can’t afford any treatment, or find that the ‘free’ essential drugs they should have access to aren’t available.
“In peer education, we talk about ‘information, motivation, behaviour and resources’,” says Sagar. “We have information about condoms, the motivation and the skills to use them properly. But what if we don’t have access to them?”
Afraid to get help
Many women and girls are also afraid of seeking help. Superstitious beliefs about menstruation prevail. People who perform abortions are still stigmatized. And women suffering from serious problems like uterine prolapse don’t go to health facilities because they are afraid that others in their community will find out and gossip about them.
I live in Kathmandu, the capital, so I have access to the information I need. But while people in Nepal’s urban areas have an advantage over rural areas, only 15 per cent of the population live in towns or cities. The other 85 per cent are left behind in terms of both access to and information about sexual and reproductive health and services.
Condoms aren’t vulgar
So what is the answer?
“The government plans to establish more youth-friendly health services in different districts,” says Sagar. “That would be a milestone.” But he also believes that young people have a key role to play, by learning about and exploring these issues.
“Change doesn’t happen overnight. This issue needs to be discussed at grassroots level, in schools. Every young person should be given comprehensive sexuality education so that they are aware of their bodies.”
“When a condom advertisement comes on TV, you can feel ashamed,” Sagar explains. “When we go into schools and colleges to talk about sexual and reproductive health and rights, people say ‘This is vulgar.’ But people need to get out of that stereotyped thinking. Getting at ease with those topics in front of everybody is such an important thing.”
Nepal still has a long way to go, particularly to fix the problems faced by people in rural areas. But there are ways to begin addressing them, and that’s what Amnesty’s My Body, My Rights campaign and organizations like Y-PEER are determined to prove.
New feature article: Women’s silent killer
Sabrina Frydman is a young lawyer and activist from Argentina who campaigns with Amnesty to make young people’s heard on sexual and reproductive rights issues. Read an interview with her on page 12 in WIRE January/February.