Pratisandhi is a youth-run initiative taking baby steps to create a difference. The primary goal of the organization is to create awareness and educate people about sexual health and wellness. Pratisandhi is a Sanskrit word that means the period of transition between two ages, and here it signifies the transition between childhood and adulthood. It is also synonymous with resistance, which resonates with removing the stigma around sexual education.
Niyati Sharma, the founder of Pratisandhi, is a twenty-year-old dynamic and incredible person. Currently, she is enrolled at the University of British Columbia and is pursuing her undergrad degree in psychology and International Relations. She has put her heart and soul into creating this excellent initiative.
How did Pratisandhi come into existence?
Multiple factors played a crucial role in the formation of Pratisandhi. But the most contributing factor comes into the picture when I had gone to Belgium after Grade 10 as an exchange student for one year. During the exchange program, the students were given a survey form. They were asked questions about contraceptives, how sexually active they are, and the sources they are getting their information from. It was a very comprehensive survey, and I felt a little weird because nobody asked them back home. I was amazed that it is such a common topic for them, and I wondered wouldn’t it be cool if we had something like that back here in India?
Another factor was that my mom is a gynecologist, and every time I had a question, I could straight up ask her, and she’d give me a medical perspective. Some of my friends would insist on asking questions to my mom because they felt it would be a little weird to ask themselves. I became a mediator between my mom and my friends. It occurred to me that there is a need for a platform where people can get reliable information and ask questions without feeling judged. After I came back from the exchange program, I set up a page for Pratisandhi, which was the inception of Pratisandhi.
Since you have met so many people on the ground, what is the actual situation in India?
I would say it is improving. My interaction with students from colleges such as LSR, Miranda House, and SRCC has been very positive. These students are aware, and even if they aren’t aware, they know they are unaware. But they are taking steps to become more aware, and it is a good thing.
The reality at the school level is very different. Once you are in college, you are bound to have these conversations. It is easier to have these conversations when you are an adult. In school, there is like a severe hush-hush about these things. There is a lot of misinformation amongst students, and they cannot get accurate information from their friends either.
In most private schools, the students have access to information and can get the right information. But more often than not, they are getting information from things like porn or friends who don’t have any factual information. Students often feel shut-down in this situation. Like they want to ask the counselor, there is always a fear that the counselor would shut them down, not listen to them or not understand them.
Are the teachers taking the initiative to start a dialogue with the adolescent students?
Most schools now are making an effort to at least address the female students about puberty and menstruation. There aren’t many sessions conducted for boys. Furthermore, many schools are now taking a new strive to educate ten-year-olds on safe and unsafe touch.
But when it comes to talking about more sensitive topics like contraception, STDs or consent, there is confusion that should we educate the students about it? There is some hesitation there, but it is also essential to understand that teachers cannot independently take the initiative. They have to get parents on board as well, and there are genuine concerns that parents might have when it comes to sex ed. It is not a one-person thing; you have to get a lot of stakeholders on board. Also, you have to ensure that the content you are presenting to the minors is thoroughly vetted because you cannot expose them to something inappropriate.
Are the parents apprehensive about these programs? What is the feedback you receive from them?
I think some parents are. It is because they haven’t received sex education during their time. Parents also believe that sex education means teaching children how to have sex, which is far from true. Once parents understand what comprehensive sexuality education means, there is much less resistance because they understand its need and reality.
Recently, we have been doing a pilot program of the bridging gaps program. We have many students on board who are interested in knowing more about sexual health, and they sign up for it. The students need to ask for consent from their parents because they are under eighteen. They are worried about asking the parents about it because they have never had a conversation before.
When you were interacting with these children, did you find that they had many misconceptions or raised expectations from information present online?
The children get a lot of misconceptions from porn. These misconceptions are not just about what sex looks like. It is also about how long a man is supposed to last in bed or size. It creates a lot of insecurity. Whenever these questions pop up, we try to emphasize that sex doesn’t revolve around genitals alone. We try to normalize different kinds of body types in our puberty workshop.
Another thing is that a lot of students are unaware of what intersex means. There is still a little bit more awareness about the LGBTQ community. It is a rudimentary understanding, but at least it is a start.
Do you work with children from schools directly or with organizations as well?
We work with both, but lately, we have been working with other non-profit organizations, shelter homes, and orphanages. We want to fill the gap by having a conversation with them about growing up and inculcating soft skills that are a part of sexual education. We are also working with private schools and universities, but our focus remains on kids from less privileged backgrounds. Post the Covid situation; our main target would be to work in rural areas.
Do you think we need to have some programs for adults to break the stigma and then move on to children?
I think this has to work simultaneously because convincing parents is essential, but when it comes to sexual education, you must start at a young age. It is because students are much more receptive to information at that age. It is tough to challenge a mindset that has been for a long duration, and it is much easier to reframe the thoughts when you are younger. The idea of changing all adults’ perspective is not realistic because, naturally, there is going to be some resistance to it.
Pratisandhi is currently based in Delhi. Do you plan to expand it to the rest of the states?
Since it is a sensitive topic, we want to ensure all hands on deck. In January 2021, we plan to launch an Ambassador program wherein we will recruit ambassadors from all over India. We will provide all the support to the ambassadors, and we want them to take up ownership and devise their projects to further the agenda.
Over the years, Pratisandhi has achieved a lot of milestones. Which one would be the most prominent achievement?
Being registered was one of the most significant milestones we have accomplished because we could consolidate the organization and formalize it. Another outstanding achievement was to get some wonderful mentors on board. We worked with Dr. Martha Lee, who is based in Singapore; she helps us and guides our work. We have partnered with her for her sexuality festivals. We also worked with Mr. Daniel, who is associated with the PathFinder International Organization. The support helped and got us thinking in a more structured manner.
Pratisandhi also has a collaboration with the Character First Initiative, Uganda. The organization also works on sexual health and reproductive rights. Their prime focus is the HIV-AIDS initiative. During this collaboration, Pratisandhi has created some incredible content and helped with outreach.
Pratisandhi runs a bridging gap program in a pilot version at present. Next year they plan to take it offline and plan to impact at least 10,000 students. You can read all about it on the link mentioned below and share it with your peers who would benefit from the program.
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