By Kanchan Gautam
Like most children in Nepal I grew up learning certain things were never discussed. One of those being sex, more importantly sex/reproductive health and sexuality. I am sure many Nepalese can corroborate with me on how uncomfortable it is to watch a movie or a show with family members even when it involves an innocent kiss. Things even as simple as that are considered a big no-no and found to be “dirty.” Discussing how babies are made or what steps one should take in protecting themselves from STDs or unwanted pregnancies is never mentioned. Recently while talking to a younger relative of mine, I found it ironic that a society that is deeply influenced by Hinduism, a sexually liberated religion, somehow is culturally very repressed. Many teens and young adults have either no or very little knowledge about sex, reproduction and sexuality.
One of the earliest memories I have is being told at an early age that once I started menses (menstruation) I should become more careful and keep myself “pure” and avoid contact with the other gender as much as possible. Young girls are taught to stay away from things and people during menstruation, touching something as simple as a flower or water during one’s menstrual cycle would render the item “un-pure” and useless. Even cause it to wither and die. So all in all from an early age girls are taught to be ashamed of something as natural as menses which creates a sense of isolation and fear because of their gender. It also puts a lot of pressure on young women because they are taught from an early age that their virginity and sexuality is what holds a family’s honor. Similar pressure is put on men as well, however from interactions with my male counterparts I have come to the conclusion that preserving male virginity is not as grave as the female’s. This isolation and fear mongering all leads to Nepali society promoting abstinence over anything else and little to no actual sexual education is provided.
Many scientific studies have shown preaching abstinence does not prevent unwanted/teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases or major reproductive health problems. The key is to educate people on different aspects of reproductive health including, but not limited to: sexuality, gender issues, risks and benefits of different contraceptive methods. Also provide an open environment where teenagers are allowed to discuss and ask questions regarding these topics without stigma.
Nepal does have a mandatory health/sex education program in place that is used in the school system, however the program is very outdated and incomplete with most teachers choosing to go through it quickly and sometimes even skip it as they find it too embarrassing to teach or discuss with their students. This was my experience; my teacher chose to spend maybe an hour on the topic and decided to focus mostly on anatomy and skipped everything else. I didn’t get a proper sex education until I had moved to the States and spent months on different issues related to sexual health.
Sometimes I wonder how young women and men in Nepal are being educated on sexual health presently; has the education system improved, has Nepali society de-stigmatized discussing sex/sexual health or are young adults learning from “word of mouth”/ the internet, or trial and error? I was directed to a few articles that gave me the impression not much has changed since I spent that hour receiving an education on reproductive health almost 13 years ago. It seems there is still a huge stigma surrounding sex and open discussion about sexuality. Due to this, young adults are embarrassed and shy about asking questions that could prevent them from health issues and unwanted diseases/pregnancies. Instead teens and young adults are practicing risky sexual behavior and using no contraceptives or dangerous contraceptive methods that could have long term negative health consequences.
An article I recently read discusses two such dangerous practices by teens in Nepal; excessive use of Plan B or the morning after pill and little to no use of condoms. Unaware of the risks of using Plan B on a regular basis young women are choosing to utilize this as a form of regular birth control rather than use contraceptive methods that are created for everyday use such as the Birth Control Pill, IUD, NuvaRing, Diaphragm etc. They are choosing the latter not because of cost, but because of its anonymity and mis-education that it is safe to use regularly. Most emergency contraceptive pills don’t have long term effects if used sparsely, however regular use can cause ovarian cysts, irregular menstrual cycle/bleeding, high blood pressure, clinical depression, and various other health problems. The morning after pill also does not protect against STDs or STIs so teens are opening themselves up to various serious illnesses. The young women interviewed for this article mentioned the reason they were using this method was due to their male counterparts preferring not to use condoms. To avoid pregnancies their best option was Plan B. Plan B does not require one to receive a consult or visit with a doctor or physician like most other forms of birth control, therefore one will avoid experiencing the humiliation of a health care professional judging and disapproving their lifestyle choices.
I could go on quoting multiple articles found on the web about risky sexual behaviors by teens and young adults in Nepal due to the above, however that is not my intention here. I wanted to focus on Nepali culture and the shame of openly discussing sex, sexuality and reproductive health. I feel that allowing open discourse among family members, relatives and peers in the Nepali community regarding sex and reproductive health starting at a young age will prevent any unfortunate scenarios later on.
Women and men should not be burdened with the outdated opinions based on their sexuality and putting the burden of a family’s honor or status on them is just cruel and unrealistic. We as a society are isolating men and women from an early age by doing so. Marking women as “untouchable” every month and branding them a “whore” or “fouled” based on their lifestyle choices while avoiding any real discussions about normal reproductive behaviors allows for a sense of inequity between men and women. It causes a gender imbalance where one gender feels isolated and another gender to ignore the consequence of their reckless sexual behavior.
Let’s face it, most young adults nowadays are not waiting until marriage to become sexually active so hiding behind practices and opinions instead of teaching and discussing safe sex and reproductive health is going to do more harm than anything. Let’s hope Nepal’s education system changes as well as the opinions and shame attributed to all things sex/ reproduction related. Let’s open up doors to discussions about what people experience as a Nepalese woman or man growing up or present day regarding sex, sexuality and reproductive health.
**Please do share your opinions regarding Nepal’s various cultural practices regarding the above issues.
Few articles I used for this post/ for further reading if interested: