"Since you are talking about sexual rights, why don't you explain sex to me practically?"
Zafreen Neha, 25, a youth gender leader with over five years of on-ground experience in amplifying issues of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), often finds herself at the receiving end of lewd comments. Hailing from district Isapur Phulwari Sharif, Patna, Bihar, she recounts instances of being chased away from meetings she organized, by communities upholding misplaced notions of modesty. Unabashedly talking about sexual health publicly in communities that deeply mistrust SRHR Awareness, leads to young leaders like Zafreen being judged "shameless" and "promiscuous" women.
The pain point, Zafreen believes, remains the 'jhijhak' and the 'sharam' (the modesty that rightly befits a woman) associated with sexual and reproductive health communication in society. We have gone so long without having healthy conversations that now when there are attempts to remedy it, they are perceived as counter-productive.
"Parents are reluctant to talk about sexual health or the adolescent body because they believe that adolescents don't need to be a part of these discussions. They believe that if adolescents are engaged in conversations about their body, it would provoke them to start having sexual intercourse. Whereas if things are allowed to take their own course, they will figure things out as and when needed, when they start menstruating or when they are married, for instance," says Zafreen.
This mistrust of sexual and reproductive health awareness is a two-pronged problem. On the one hand, it keeps adolescents prone to harm caused by misinformation and on the other hand, leads to the vilification of on-ground gender leaders like Zafreen.
Zafreen is a Programme Coordinator at CSEI in Bihar and volunteers as a Youth Champion and vartaKarta member with The vartaLeap Coalition. In the first three years of her journey with CSEI, she had worked with 600 young persons across 12 districts of Bihar. Since 2019, 1000 young persons have been reached and their lives impacted through state-level consultation, rally, campaigns, etc. Out of these 450 people have been engaged in Know Your Body, Know Your Rights, the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Program by CSEI.
Zafreen remembers when she started her journey with CSEI in 2016, "When I first realized that a large part of my job would be to talk and educate people about sexual health, I was so unnerved that I couldn't sleep for days. Even the thought of imagining myself doing that would embarrass me. I considered walking away from the job. But I stuck to the training and that gave me the confidence to carry on."
Over the years CSEI and its partner organizations have nurtured leadership skills in Zafreen and other members by periodical training sessions, where they are given the know-how of the curriculum as well as prepared to deal with every possible challenge they might have to face on-ground.
Emphasising the importance of capacity building through opportunities, Zafreen says, "It is about giving people the opportunity to lead. As CSEI gives its members the opportunity to represent their community at the state and national levels, the members keep the circle going and give the young people the opportunity to represent their communities at the district level. This builds their confidence and leadership capacity by bringing them out of the bubble of their community. For instance, at the Savitri Jayanti celebration in Patna, CSEI engaged two young people from every district to represent their community at a larger platform."
Speaking about vartaLeap's Campaign 'GenNation Building' on Youth Duties and Rights, one that she is deeply invested in, she says, "Just like it is our duty to move a rock from the middle of the street or turn off a running faucet that is not being used, it is also our duty to initiate conversations and dissuade the parents of an underage person from marrying their child."
The GenNation Building: Youth Duties and RIghts Draft Declaration Draft is a framework that aims at enabling all youth engaging organisations and individuals to co-create the right space, context and narrative for the youth in this country towards 'nation building' that is collaborative, inclusive and sustainable!