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Let's talk about sex  

AASHEESH SHARMA  
FEBRUARY 26: A dolescence may not be as innocent for the millennium youngster as it was a generation back. But doubts on sexual health and sexuality are still widely prevalent. On the other hand, earlier exposure to smut on the television and other media, has created more question marks in the adolescent mind.According to data with Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues (TARSHI), a sexual health helpline based in the Capital, the primary sources of information on sexuality for most teenagers remain friends, jokes, blue films and, very rarely, parents and teachers.

It is in this background that telephone helplines that provide young people a safe space to talk freely about matters they may never have discussed with anyone else, become important.There are many helplines addressing issues related to sexual health in Delhi. You have the NAZ Foundation focussing on HIV/AIDS, Sakshi counselling abused women, and Rahi looking at issues related to homosexuality, to name a few.But dispelling doubts about sexuality in the minds of teenagers is TARSHI's USP. The idea is to enable women and men to enjoy a life of dignity, free from fear and infection, says its founder Radhika Chandiramani. ``We began in 1997 with the aim to address sexual and reproductive health issuesin a non-judgemental manner.

Through telephone counselling, we want to help callers do what they want with their bodies and lives,'' says Chandiramani.The TARSHI helpline was set up with the help of an individual fellowship by the MacArthur foundation, which Chandiramani won. The NGO is also supported by the Ford Foundation that has extended a grant that willl help them expand their activities in the country. The helpline targets people of all ages, classes and sexual preferences, especially women. ``But it is men who are more curious about sexual matters and form the majority (about 80 per cent of the callers.

A big chunk of the calls come from people aged 18-25. But we cater to anybody from seven to 70, '' she adds.Its two phone lines at 462 2221 and 462 4441 operate from Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm, providing information, counselling and referrals in Hindi and English. ``We provide accurate information in simple terms without asking for the name of the caller. But we do allot them a code name for their convenience. It helps avoid a repeat narration of their problem and the embarrassment it causes, if they call up again,'' explains Chandiramani.Explaining why TARSHI focusses on sexuality, when other helplines address more than one issue at a time, Chandiramani says reproductive and sexual health decisions can't be isolated from sexuality. ``Sexual and reproductive behaviours emerge from and have an impact upon life contexts. Also, gender-based inequalities in society affect the choices available to and those made by individuals,'' she says.

The backbone of the helpline is a team of four trained women counsellors. ``All of them have undergone in-house training for about six weeks. Following the training, all the calls they take are supervised for four weeks, until they have demonstrated their ability to handle calls well. This is necessary as the subject is very sensitive,'' says Chandiramani.The tone of the respondent and her first reaction to a call are very important, says Chandiramani. For instance, ``If a 14 year old calls up and puts up a query on masturbation or kissing, the stress should be on making him or her comfortable and never expressing shock,'' she explains.The NGO does not rely solely on the helpline to spread awareness on sexuality.

Chandiramani writes a column in The Asian Age on it and they distribute succinct, simple booklets that discuss sexuality. ``We have divided them into two age groups. The `10-14 years' booklet helps teenagers understand body basics and the `15-19 years' one elaborates on these,'' she says. Every call taken is documented to enable continuity and to analyse the documentation for emerging trends. ``The level of ignorance on sexual matters is high in our society, we are trying to correct this picture,'' says Chandiramani.

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.

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