International Adolescents Health Week: Community Engagement is key to improving health of adolescents in rural India

 - Sakshi Post

Evidence from multiple sources show that adolescents have limited access to sexual and reproductive health information and services.  Girls, especially, have little or no agency over their life choices, which adversely affect their health-seeking behavior to address issues like early marriage, unwanted pregnancies, and unsafe abortions. Additionally, inequalities and lack of services cause huge gaps in menstrual hygiene and reproductive health awareness among adolescents in rural India. As the world marks International Adolescents’ Health Week (March 21 – 27), it is critical to focus on addressing the basic health and wellbeing of our adolescents.

Research has shown that interventions that include provisioning of accurate information and education about sexual and reproductive health among adolescents could help reduce maternal deaths, unplanned pregnancies, unsafe abortions and improve menstrual hygiene in rural and under-served urban communities. Information outreach programs can dramatically reduce the stigma around sexuality, curtail negative sexual and reproductive health outcomes, and empower young adolescents to exercise agency in matters like marriage and family planning.

It is, however, a challenge to dispense information about menstruation and reproductive health in regions where gender-based discrimination is pervasive and young adolescent girls have limited access to financial resources, mobility, and the power of decision making. This is where organizations like the Population Foundation of India play a critical role in bridging information gaps and equipping adolescents, youth, and other stakeholders within the community with resources, knowledge and connecting them to available services.

Divya Santhanam, Senior State Program Manager (Rajasthan) at Population Foundation of India, says, “Changing gender norms is a complex and long-term process.  However, by focusing first on shifting attitudes among gatekeepers and family members we hope to impact community and family norms. Population Foundation of India strategically engages gatekeepers within the community around sexual and reproductive health issues of young girls and boys under our FAYA intervention. Through the program, we reach 10,000+ adolescent girls and boys with a Comprehensive Health Education Curriculum. In addition, behavior change activities are focused on gatekeepers such panchayat members, parents, teachers, community and religious leaders.”

Population Foundation of India facilitates activities such as Raatri Chaupals to initiate dialogues on sensitive subjects related to adolescent sexual and reproductive health. Some examples include the “Suni Unsuni” activity, which helps address widely held myths and misconceptions around important issues; “Pardey ke Pichche” sessions are conducted to generate thought-provoking discussions on taboo and socially sensitive issues. These innovative communication strategies are critical to creating awareness and sensitizing the community and key stakeholders, while also building an enabling environment for adolescents to access sexual and reproductive health information and services.  As a result of this work on the ground, community leaders and parents have taken up the mantle and now act as champions and influencers of change in their community.

Still, a great deal must be done to ensure all adolescents have equal access to sexual and reproductive health services. “Community engagement is key to ensuring positive changes in reproductive health for girls and women in rural India,” says Santhanam, adding, “We must ensure equal accessibility of health services and hygiene products in times of a crisis to all women and young girls.” Sensitizing adolescent girls and boys is the best way to arm them with the tools and information they need to safeguard their sexual and reproductive health and seek care when appropriate. Coupled with health systems strengthening to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health care, this should ensure that future generations are better equipped to make informed decisions affecting their health and well-being.

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