As a nation, we have become quite familiar with bans and restrictions that impinge on the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution. Last week, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) restricted the broadcast of condom advertisements on television to a "safe" slot between 10 pm and 6 am. The directive was subsequently partly rescinded earlier this week. However, the I&B ministry's first response is a matter of concern, as it ran the risk of jeopardising decades of hard work on sexual and reproductive health by the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, civil society, and other stakeholders.
The message that the ban sent out was contradictory to the work of the ministry under this very government since 2015 in raising awareness on spacing methods and family planning. This includes the roll-out of Mission Parivar Vikas and the introduction of three new contraceptives (injectables, centchroman, progestin-only pills) into the basket of choices. In fact, there has been a special effort to increase the acceptance and uptake of condoms, which is currently used by only 5.6% of men in the country.
One of the earliest and safest methods of contraception, condoms are the only method that provide protection against sexually-transmitted diseases and infections. It is also the only spacing method that allows men to share equal responsibility in family planning, thereby shifting the burden from women. A restriction on condom advertisements would not only impact maternal and infant health but also compromise decades of progress made in increasing awareness on HIV/AIDS.
The directive from the I&B ministry cited the need to protect children from 'vulgar' content and to prevent them from developing an interest in 'unhealthy practices'. However, children today access information through channels other than television. Left to their devices and without guidance, they often rely on their peers and pornography to satisfy their curiosity. They then run the risk of falling into a trap of misinformation that may result in lasting damage. Rather than causing harm, information that is disseminated responsibly and with clear intent could empower them to be conscientious individuals who understand the importance of issues like safe sex, maternal and infant health, and even consent.
India has been late to prioritise adolescent sexual and reproductive health, an area grossly neglected in a country where every fifth person is an adolescent and every third person is a youth. This is India's window of opportunity, our demographic dividend. But the demographic dividend does not trigger itself; we need to invest in this segment of the population and need to prepare for it. This includes providing them access to education, nutrition and health, including sexual and reproductive health. The entertainment-education web-series, Sex ki Adalat by the Population Foundation of India (PFI) dealt with sensitive issues like menstruation, pornography, and virginity. The show is an example of how sensitive subjects can be packaged with wit and humour, without compromising on facts or challenging sensibilities.
Adolescence is a turbulent period of physical and psychological transition, and young people need to be given information that will address their questions on sexual health. Advertisements can be a conversation starter about safe sex and family planning among couples as well as between parents and their children. A study on the contraceptive needs of older adolescents (15 to 19 years) in Rajasthan by the International Institute for Population Sciences and Population Council found that 26% of unmarried boys reported being in a romantic relationship with a member of the opposite-sex; so did 16% of unmarried girls. The fertility pattern among married girls in this age group was also revealing, with 40% women responding that their last pregnancy was unwanted.
The restriction was coincidentally announced on the day the Guttmacher Institute released The Incidence of Abortion and Unintended Pregnancy in India, 2015, a study on the number of abortions and abortion-related deaths in India. The study revealed that an estimated 70.1 pregnancies per 1,000 women aged 15 to 49 years are unintended. With nearly half of 48 million pregnancies in India being unwanted, and 15 million abortions occurring annually, there is a strong case for people to know about condoms and to be reminded to use them. As a safe and effective method of contraception, condoms are, in fact, a public health necessity, rather than a late-night indulgence.
Advertising thrives on suggestive content, and if advertisements are necessary to create the demand for safe sex and family planning, then we need to ensure that it is not limited by restrictions. The Advertising Standards Council has not played its role in this matter, which is to review the content of advertisements and find culturally appropriate ways of breaking the silence on sexual health and reproductive choice. Indian culture and traditions are not static; there have been several reiterations and it has moved with the times. Launching an attack on all commercials for condoms would be detrimental to the advance on several critical issues that the nation is grappling with. Nevertheless, if an advertisement is considered insensitive or inappropriate for wider viewing, then the content can be graded and, like in the film industry, slotted for telecast accordingly. Fortunately, this is what the I&B ministry now seems to be suggesting, and that's welcome.
Bans and restrictions are not signs of a mature democracy; more measured and calibrated responses are needed from our policymakers. Moral policing and censorship has reached such a high pitch in India that even a friendly hug between a boy and a girl can lead to punitive action, as it did in Kerala last week.
Such extreme measures not only costs children their dignity, but can also leave a deep scar in their minds. As India edges towards becoming the most populous country in the world, we need to invest in greater access to contraception through more and better awareness. This would support India's commitment on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically SDG-3 that calls to "ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services, including for family planning, information and education, and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programmes."
(The writer is Executive Director, Population Foundation of India)