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Changing Social Norms Around Sexuality And Safety For Adolescents

picture of a young girl writing on the blackboard
  • Tanvi[1] often feels uncomfortable when her uncle hugs her; even though he says she is the best girl, Tanvi never feels good!
  • Abdul is a teacher who tells a girl from class 8 to come and see him at his house, where he will give her private tutoring before the examination.
  • Heena feels attracted to a boy who lives next door. The boy also seems to be keen to talk to her. She does not know what to do.
  • In public transportation, Rehana sees a boy staring at a girl who seems uncomfortable; she steps in between them and asks for a space to sit down.

We frequently experience or hear about similar situations in our lives.  The norms related to safety tell us NOT to talk about sexuality and this shapes the rules of society and its expectations from girls and boys. Generally, there is no education about this at home. Parents do not talk to children about sex or sexuality, with the occasional exception of mothers speaking to girls about menstruation management.

The right to sexuality education lies at the intersection of the rights to education, health, participation and protection. This right is provided for in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR, Article 13) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, Articles 28 and 29). While government policies on paper reinforce the need for sexuality education and enact this through national education curricula, the actual implementation of these mechanisms fails. Teachers and administrators come from the same social environment where talking about sex and sexuality is not a “safe” endeavor.

Referring to the second story, in a village in Bangladesh, when the male teacher asks girls to come to his house and had also made girls uncomfortable with his remarks, the girls as they already attended a group, collectively reached out to the authorities in the school and the union parishad[2]. Their parents supported them, and the teacher was put behind bars.

When it comes to the safety of adolescent girls, it is a concern at home, in the community, in public spaces, and educational institutions. If we deeply examine this concern for safety, we see strong norms controlling girls’ and women’s sexuality, which in turn limit aspirations beyond what is deemed acceptable for women and girls in society. CARE’s Tipping Point Initiative seeks to challenge these restrictive norms through multiple, reinforcing pathways in an effort to expand the supportive and safe relationships and environments for girls while helping them fight for their rights.

There may be many girls like Tanvi in the first story, who could resist advances from a known person if they are aware of their rights, if they know they won’t be judged or blamed if they raise their voice.

Girls’ Voice and Leadership

There is a need to strengthen girls’ voices, so they stand up for themselves, ask questions when restricted by parents from going out or talking to boys in the name of safety.  Collectivising girls has helped bring their voices together to ask questions when they are stopped by people who claim these restrictions keep them safe. It brings girls together to take action and build their skills and confidence to handle situations by themselves.

It’s important that the community gets used to seeing girls in different spaces on a continuing basis. Girls’ presence in different spaces, their discussing issues, advocating with peers and collectivising themselves for a cause is in itself challenging norms around their place in society and thus their safety, mobility and sexuality. Visibility of girls and boys working together in a community can facilitate the community’s acceptance of boys and girls being seen together as normal.

We need to see if there are options for girls like Heena who is attracted towards a boy and does not know how to deal with her feelings. Even though she wants to talk to him, social norms don’t permit her to talk to a boy, the norms don’t expect a girl to initiate friendship or show an interest in a boy. And,  importantly, if they are able to get to know and love each other, there is hardly any information available to adolescents about keeping themselves safe in a relationship.

Engagement with Parents and Gatekeepers

Particularly in rural communities, there is a norm that girls do not talk to their parents about issues of sexuality. Therefore, it is important to reflect with the parents of girls about these norms. Often the only forum available for the government to meet parents is the Parent Teacher Association (PTA). However, the parents of out-of-school girls cannot access the PTA platform. While working with adolescents to engage with sexuality related topics, there should be efforts to involve parents so that such dialogues can begin at home. Inter-generational dialogue opportunities will build a relationship where parents and children both feel comfortable discussing issues of sexuality and safety, and these open and honest conversations can become a new norm. Tipping Point engages with parents, religious leaders and school-teachers using reflective and participatory sessions to challenge social norms. Interventions like inter-group dialogues between boys, girls, mothers and fathers also help to challenge some of these norms around safety and sexuality.

Teachers have an opportunity to connect with both parents and adolescents. Transforming capacities of teachers to discuss, promote and drive education related to sexuality will not only help adolescents receive this information, but will also improve interactions with parents. There must be a safe space for teachers to reflect on issues of sexuality in their own lives. Reflections rooted in their own lived experiences will help them challenge norms and think together with parents and adolescents about issues of sexuality. While current sexuality education curricula include teacher trainings, effective discourse must involve reflection and continuous follow-ups. Social norms cannot change without iterations and reflections in a safe environment and a one-time training investment does not provide this.

Bystander Action

In the last vignette, Rehana steps in to provide support via bystander action. It’s necessary for girls, boys and adult allies to learn and practice bystander action when they see someone’s safety being compromised. This could feel awkward or unsafe for the person who takes bystander action. Breakthrough’s ‘bell bajao campaign’which encourages ringing the doorbell when domestic violence is occurring is a great example of bystander action. Sharing experiences and talking about bystander actions can help girls, boys, parents and teachers identify actions that they should and could take when they have the ability to intervene in an unsafe situation.

To ensure that important discussions about issues of sexuality can take place at home, in schools and between generations, efforts needs to be made to change the norms especially those related to perceptions of safety. Individuals, institutions, organisations and policies need to work together to include safe spaces for reflections and opportunities for these discussions to become common practice.

[1] All names have been changed.

[2] In Bangladesh, Union Parishads are the smallest rural administrative and local government units.

इस लेख को हिंदी में पढ़ने की लिए यहाँ क्लिक करें।

Cover Image: Pixabay

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