Breaking Taboos Around Family Planning

A USAID-supported program is empowering young adults to have open conversations on birth control and improving access for those who need it.

By Burton Bollag

August 2023

Breaking Taboos Around Family Planning

Delhi Learning Lab’s volunteers raise awareness by putting on skits on issues like menstruation, sexual health, consent, family planning and safe sex. Photograph courtesy Restless Development

In a community center on a noisy street in New Delhi’s Dakshinpuri, an ambitious project is empowering young adults to take control of their sexual and reproductive health.

With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Delhi Learning Lab is training young adults to talk to their peers about age appropriate sexual and reproductive health, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases. Program participants, called Youth Champions, visit local pharmacies and health clinics to urge them to provide birth control services to young adults, whether married or not, including those from underserved groups like the LGBTQIA+ community and persons with disabilities. 

Breaking the taboo

Observers say that due to conservative attitudes, pharmacies and health clinics often provide access to birth control and family planning only to married couples.

Young adults, especially women and girls, are often ignored when they contact such facilities, says Naval Kishor Gupta, head of the India chapter of Restless Development, which runs the Delhi Learning Lab. Restless Development works with young people in 74 countries. 

“There is a high demand for sexual and reproductive health services, but it is a taboo. We help young adults understand that these services are a right and they can demand it. We also collaborate with parents, local communities, government authorities, civil society organizations, faith-based leaders, and youth-led groups, driving a positive change in families and communities,” adds Gupta. 

Need for safe spaces

Delhi Learning Lab has trained 20 Youth Champions who teach their peers through sessions on-site and by going door-to-door in Dakshinpuri. They also visit pharmacies and health clinics to check whether these facilities provide contraceptives to young adults. If not, the Youth Champions try to explain the need for contraception at a young age.

“Many young people are interested in discussing contraception and safe sex,” says Pooja, a 20-year-old Youth Champion who aspires to join the police department. Yet, the champions meet some resistance, especially from parents. “Many say, ‘Why are you talking about these topics? You should focus on your education,’ and slam the door.”

Pooja adds that when young adults ask for contraceptives, pharmacies and health clinics “often don’t provide them, or do moral policing and say, ‘Come back with your parents.’”

Another Youth Champion, Piyush Sanwaria, a first-year distance learning university student who identifies as nonbinary, says people they talk with “often don’t even know what family planning is, though the young people are more curious.”

Educating and empowering

One way the activists try to raise awareness is to go out into the neighborhoods and put on skits on issues like menstruation, consent, family planning and safe sex. Rekha, a 19-year-old Youth Champion who also aspires to become a policewoman, says, “first we explain what it’s about, then we present the skit, and then we discuss what people understood from it.”

In a recent skit, a young newlywed couple is pressured by their community to start having children right away. But they talk to each other about the need to wait until they are financially and emotionally ready, and the fact that the bride wants to attend university. They also discuss which contraceptive method to use.

Roshni, a 27-year-old disability-rights activist and a Youth Champion, says the project is having an impact. “We are making a change because a lot of young people keep coming back to ask for more sessions about these topics. And lately, many parents send their children to the center to learn more.”

Building a roadmap

The Delhi Learning Lab is training 400 young “Changemakers” who assist the Youth Champions in raising awareness in the community. The goal is to reach and engage with at least 10,000 15-29-year-olds. Similar programs are also underway in Assam, Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh to engage adolescents and youth in decisions about their reproductive health and well-being, as part of a larger USAID-funded initiative, MOMENTUM Country and Global Leadership: India-Yash.

Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C.

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