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Communicating with adolescents needs innovation and involvement What works and doesn’t work in sexual health communication with adolescents

Bhavani Giddu – The author runs a public health advocacy and communications firm - Footprint Global Communications - in New Delhi and can be reached on Twitter @bgiddu

As I listen to session after session of experts on adolescent sexual and reproductive health at the International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP 2016) currently ongoing at Bali Nusa Dua Convention Centre, Indonesia, one message seems to be very loud and clear – Adult control of adolescent sexuality is a critical threat to adolescent wellbeing. Every public health expert in the Bali Conference reiterated this message.

While India is making some phenomenal strides in addressing the family planning commitments, with our Health Minister JP Nadda recently stating that birth spacing, expanding basket of choice and quality of care is priorities of the Government in this area, it is time to rethink our strategies in the outreach to adolescents on sexual health communication.

Aren’t we as a country still embarrassed to use the word “sex” in conversations at home, leave alone discuss it with our adolescents? Our adolescents have more access to porn than to critical information they need about sex and about changes in their bodies as they grow into puberty and adulthood. Sex education never worked in India – not as a word and not as a practice. Perhaps it is time to reposition it as “Self Education” – education about the self as they transform physically and mentally into a critical phase of their life.

Doesn’t this lack of information and engagement with the adolescents in this context make them vulnerable to disease, abuse and misinformation? Adolescents have the right to full range of information and access to sexual health practices and methods. Are we communicating with them effectively? Are we engaging with and empowering them effectively as key stakeholders of the adolescent outreach program on sexual and reproductive health? Is the Government program Radhtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (National Adolescent Health Program) achieving its objectives?

Communicating with adolescents needs innovation in our country. We should break the social barriers of talking about sex and empowering the adolescent with critical information that will enable them to make the right decisions and choices in life. Our communication, be it from the Government or several NGOs and health workers working on-ground, should include voices from the adolescents, what they need to know and how they want it to be delivered to them as information, access or services. Adult control of adolescent sexuality will not work.

Innovate - Inform – Influence – Inspire model of communication for adolescent health

Innovation is the key to effectively connect and engage with adolescents. Innovation not only in the communication strategy itself but also in the medium through which we communicate with them is important. It’s critical to identify what they watch, listen to, read, where they hang out and who their role model is, while developing the outreach strategy. Using mobile phones more effectively to deliver the sexual health messages through creative use of illustrations, pictures, short messages, songs and videos with humour built into it may deliver impactful results. Identifying who their role models are and effectively using them to engage with adolescents is another strategy to explore.

Information should be crisp and clear. And using local language could be more effective. Information should be delivered through case studies, real life stories, pictorial representations and face to face interventions done in confidentiality and should be non-judgmental. Community health workers should be adequately trained to deliver messages effectively to the adolescents and build their trust to make the conversations more engaging. Information should influence them to understand their rights of full access to support and services on sexual health and the need to adopt the best practices for better health and wellbeing that will help them in their adult life as well.

Innovation in the communication should be able to drive inspiration among adolescents to be role models to their peer groups in schools and community.

All of the above is achievable only if we as a nation break our social barriers in communicating about good sexual health practices with our adolescents by engaging and involving them. Adults should stop controlling adolescent sexuality and be more open to dialogue with the youth. This will lead to many benefits including a future generation of healthy India.