When will our society develop codes of conduct suited to this new reality?
Sunita Chettri, a young, single health-worker used to squirm when boys asked her about wet dreams. She'd struggle to keep a straight face when they asked her for medicine to treat the \'disease'.
"Initially, I thought they were ragging me," says the 23-year-old. But soon she realised the queries were in earnest. Today, Sunita is adept at answering queries about sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs), AIDS, erratic sex drive, and wet dreams. She no longer blushes when she counsels young men about growing pains, instead explaining to them the changes in their bodies, and giving them additional literature to read.
But it has taken time for her to overcome her inhibitions concerning talking about sex, the body, and AIDS. As a student nurse, Sunita (not her real name) recalls asking her father what yon samparka, a term she had heard on television, meant. "I'd never heard the Nepali term for sex, so I asked my father. He pretended not to hear."
The reaction is not surprising. This is a society which thinks it is disrespectful, even vulgar, to talk about sex, especially to elders. Embarrassed teachers skim over the subject in school, and Sunita and her peers wouldn't dream of asking their parents about sex.
Instead, she and her friends devoured whatever books, and magazines they could get their hands on. "Of course, it wasn't always the right kind of material, you know the social education kind. But it did make certain things clear. Students are eager to know. There should be sex education classes which fulfil that curiousity."
Sunita thinks there is some sense in exploring relationships before getting married. But she also knows that by and large, Nepal's mainstream castes and ethnic groups regard a young woman who has a couple of boyfriends as promiscuous. The taboos are less entrenched and relations more relaxed in the minorities and indigenous groups.
Sunita Chettri belongs to that generation of young Nepalis exposed to a rapidly changing urban lifestyle that often contradicts the social, moral and religious values their parents teach them. Unlike her mother's generation, when women married very young and were forced to move from childhood into adulthood in a trice, men and women are marrying later these days. As a result, there is a new group of people-generally young working people-that is exploring the diverse recreational options thrown up by a society that is loosening its grip on its youth.
The problem, is, there are no social rules yet about how to deal with such young people. "People are comfortable about their sexuality within set norms," says Rajendra Bhadra, director of the Reproductive Health Division of the BP Memorial Health Foundation. "Some feel sex education is about sexual pleasure, they don't think of the entire picture-of sensuality, love, relationships. So there's confusion. And when you're confused, there is discomfort. Those who are open and frank about sex are comfortable with their sexuality. Those who think it's taboo and don't talk about it are also comfortable. It is those caught in between who are confused."
This confusion is reflected in the Nepali media, which sends out mixed messages that are aimed at raising awareness but often end up engendering misconceptions among adolescents trying to make sense of a bewildering new phenomenon they are faced with. A fourteen-year-old boy who is just discovering his sexuality finds it hard to relate to advertisements about STDs and HIV that feature married couples or truckers, but are vague on whether other sexually active people are at risk for STDs.
This confusion is heightened in the face of pressure, especially in urban areas, among teenagers and young adults to date, be "cool," and maintain a certain image. And so young Nepalis are often forced to lead a double life, claiming to have knowledge and experience with their friends, but pretending to know nothing in front of parents and other authority figures. They stay up late to watch adult channels long after their parents have gone to bed. Boys worry about "experience" and girls want to be slim and beautiful. And girls say they feel particularly vulnerable to the stress and stigma of double standards, and worry that they do not even have the safety net of legal abortions.
So far, what little sex education is available in schools isn't adequate. Bhadra and his colleagues were taken aback by the results of a random survey taken among high school and college students in Kathmandu and Pokhara recently. More than 11 percent of students said they had had sex, much more than they expected. The average age of first sexual intercourse was found to be 15.5 years. The gender difference was noticeable, with 30 percent of college-going men and only 2.3 of college women reporting that they have had sexual contact. Knowledge about STDs and AIDS was relatively high, but the use of condoms, low.
"In a society where sex is regarded as taboo, the results were unsettling. It made us realise that we're way behind in addressing adolescent need for information. They know how to put themselves at risk-there's STDs, HIV/AIDS, early pregnancies. But they don't seem to know how to extricate or protect themselves," says Bhadra.
The findings should perhaps not be so surprising, given the results of the first survey on Nepali sexuality conducted three years ago among an older age-group. The survey, conducted by Himal Khabarpatrika showed that 29 percent of the respondents had premarital sex and 10 percent had extra marital affairs. Roughly 60 percent males and 34 percent females said they considered themselves "liberal" about sex. Given all this, it stands to reason that people are also becoming sexually active at a younger age-when their peer group cannot give them advice and their parents and teachers would rather not know.
Bhadra and his team are working on a curriculum to provide sex education through peer educators in schools and also among other groups of adolescents including factory, and migrant workers. Apart from covering technical aspects of STDs the curriculum will focus on sex and sexuality, communication and certain psychosocial skills aimed at changing behaviour-how to say no, how to behave at picnics, group gatherings, distinguish between different kinds of touches, how to delay sexual intercourse, and what the best way is to prevent unwanted pregnancies and HIV/AIDS. "What is the use of studying names like progesterone and testosterone when you can't see how they work socially," asks Bhadra.
Parents are often aware of the need to talk to growing children but are bound by social conditioning. Says Mahesh Dev Bhattarai, director of the General Welfare Pratishthan, an organisation that works to sensitise truck drivers and commercial sex workers about sexually-transmitted diseases: "It is easier talking to people who you don't know about sex, but extremely difficult talking to people close to you." But Bhattarai has found a way to do just that. He gives his young daughter and son sex education and informaton material to proofread. "I'm sure they get the message."
What is urgently needed is better and more accessible counselling about sex and sexuality either through telephone hotlines, FM phone-ins or television programmes. And many of these need to be tailored especially for women. Last year, the BP Memorial Health Foundation's Reproductive Health Division started youth-friendly services in clinics. The program doesn't stress knowledge, but attitudes, and focuses on helping unmarried youths. "There's a difference in attitude while handing out contraceptives to unmarried and married youth," says Bhadra. The project is also creating self-assessment tools for clinics to see how effective their services are. The division provides contraceptives, but also stresses abstinence as the only foolproof way to stay in the clear, and the only behaviour that fits Nepal's dominant social mores.
Bhadra believes that while direct measures are vital, communication is equally important. The division he heads also runs a counselling hotline where callers range from traumatised victims of rape and abuse, individuals who want to talk about improving their sex life, and even some soliciting favours.
"On a deeper level, sex governs society," says Bhadra. "It needs to be talked about. In a civilised manner. It's not a western, American or European concept."
He should know. He runs an agony column in a popular weekly, Kantipur Saptahik. "When I started the column, the questions were very fundamental. Now they've become more technical, more sophisticated. Many questions from men are about their self-esteem and sexuality. Previously we received medical questions, but now they are more to do with relationships, and sexual pleasure. Readers have become more mature." And, adds the doctor, debunking a popular myth: "It isn't only middle-aged men who write." Many queries come from young people and older women.