Delhi-based feminist human rights organisation CREA conducted a study in Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh last year to assess the feasibility of delivering sexual and reproductive health information through mobile phones to adolescent girls. The study was a part of the “It’s My Body” programme held in collaboration with 15 local community-based organisations for girls aged 12 to 18 years. The findings of the study reveal the many complexities of providing information on sexual health to minors — the girls’ use of the mobile phone is extremely restricted and monitored by families, telecom operators are wary of partnering with such an initiative, and families and communities are uncomfortable with the topic. Rohini Lakshané speaks with Sanjana Gaind, Program Manager, Young Women’s Feminist Leadership, CREA about the study.
Why was the need to conduct such a feasibility study felt?
Last year we realised that we could try to see if technology, especially mobile phones, can be used as an effective medium to talk about sexual and reproductive health and rights issues with adolescent girls and to reach out to a larger cohort of girls. The idea of [using] technology was to also amplify and multiply that reach.
Do all the girls have access to mobile phones? How familiar and comfortable are they with using mobile phones and accessing the Internet from a mobile device?
Around 150 girls were interviewed as a part of the study conducted in the three states. Out of those, only around 8 to 10 percent had their own mobile phones. For the rest, access is quite limited. The phones are family phones, [owned by] their fathers or brothers or [other members of the family]. They get to use the phone in a limited way, mostly to listen to music or to play games. The use of mobile phones by girls is extremely monitored. Parents and families are always monitoring who they are talking to, who they are messaging, and their text messages are checked. They don’t have access in terms of being able to own a mobile phone and operate it on their own.
Most of the girls that we work with are unmarried. They are 18 years of age or younger. For them to own a phone is even more difficult. It’s probably the married woman who will get a phone, which will also be monitored. The [use of] the Internet on the mobile is not very widespread.
What are the types of phones the families and individual members own?
They use basic phones. Some of the boys and men who are into phones and gadgets upgrade to smartphones.
Apart from playing games and listening to music, what do the girls use the phones for?
They make calls and SMSes, but even those are made to their sisters or relatives who have moved out of the village.
Are the girls open to the idea of receiving sexual and reproductive health information through phones?
We interviewed a lot of girls who have been part of the “It’s My Body” programme, their parents, some local health service providers and community leaders. One thing that stood common across all the groups was that information on sexual and reproductive health was definitely needed as there is lack of this information. As long as you are talking within the framework of health, nutrition, hygiene, amenia, menstruation and reproduction, the parents and the community leaders said that we don’t mind you giving information, but you have to do it with responsibility. The parents, families and community leaders want to know exactly what is being given and how. The girls said that they want this information but their parents and families should be informed, because they don’t trust the girls with the phones. I don’t think it is very wise to say that information around sexuality or sex can be given on the phone.
Was there resistance from the families or the communities due to taboos about sexual and reproductive health education? Usually communities are wary that such education could push adolescents towards premarital sex.
Yes, resistance is always there. We did this study with [our] partners [organisations] and people who are already involved with the “It’s My Body” programme. The partner organisations said that such an initiative, where girls are being given mobile phones or information on mobile phones, must be supplemented by an offline, community-based initiative. If there is a question, it can be sorted it out. You have to inform the parents and the family. The entire community needs to be involved in the programme. It cannot be just on the phone.
What are the barriers to information access for these girls using mobile phones?
The barriers are quite a few. We have to seek consent from their parents or guardians for their involvement in the programme. Even if we do offline, on-the-ground implementation work, we have to seek consent from the parents. They are minors, so consent is an issue.
The silence and the taboo around sexuality, sexual health, sexual rights… the topic itself is very difficult. Another barrier is that the general approach is that only girls who are married need this kind of information; why do girls who are not married need it? We should just give them more iron tablets or talk about nutrition. The morality lens links to providing information around sexuality, health, and bodily autonomy to young girls.
When we spoke with telecom service providers in the country, they said that they were not comfortable with the topic. If you see a lot of the ongoing mobile projects, they are around agriculture, governance or maternal health, because these are the safe topics. They [telcos] said that they don’t want to promote mobile use among minors because that will get them into trouble.
From the gender lens, girls are not allowed to access technology. They are kept away from technology because of fear. For example, when we did this assessment in Bihar, our partner [organisations] said that there is a lot of violence and harassment of women on the mobile phone in Muzaffarpur, Patna [etc]. They get a lot of crank calls. Harassment is a big reason for girls not being given phones. The brother or husband always answers the phone and if it’s OK then it’s passed on to the woman. In many places, partners and parents have cited incidences of women having boyfriends, speaking with them on the phone, and eloping. The fear of girls being able to talk with boys and being more accessible to boys also keeps them away from technology.
The network and cost effectiveness of the technology is also a concern.
Did any of the girls have an income?
No, they don’t.
What did the girls think about the restrictions that were put on their mobile use?
When we did this exercise, one of the questions we asked the girls was, “What, according to you, are your rights?” They wrote about the right to go out, the right to study, and a number of them wrote about the right to own mobile phones or use mobile phones. They believe that they should be allowed to use the mobile phone on their own and that their use should be monitored less. They definitely don’t enjoy being kept away from the mobile phones.
What are the reasons given by parents or other members of the family to curtail the use of the mobile phone?
Apart from the fear of crank callers and harassment, the biggest concern for the parents of unmarried girls is that they might develop relationships with boys. There have been incidences where young couples eloped and the girl killed herself. It was said that she had a mobile phone and she would use it to speak with the boy. It’s a trust issue.
Sex education is banned in twelve states in India. The age of consent for having sex is 18 years. In this protectionist environment, what are the stumbling blocks to providing sexuality related information?
Sex education being banned is one thing. People are not ready to talk about sexuality and sexual rights, or to talk about rights. A lot of the conversations on women’s health are on the issues of nutrition, reproduction and contraception. The idea is to also talk about health, sexuality and reproductive health within a rights perspective, which is missing — where you are talking to women and girls about them to be able to decide whether they want to use a certain service, their right to information, and talking about pleasure and not just violence or how their bodies are only meant to produce babies.
You mentioned telcos are not keen to promote mobile use among minors and to disseminate this kind of information. Do you face or anticipate any other issues from the intermediaries and telecom service providers?
We did not get a very good reaction or good support from the telecom companies. If a mobile network provider does not partner with you in something like this, then the cost has be borne completely by the NGO. And it’s a huge cost because you will not design any programme which will put the cost burden on the user. It limits their use. It’s a cost intensive project. It requires a certain amount of money to be put in not only in terms of daily use but infrastructure, backend, data storage, data management, issues of privacy etc.
Have you tried to approach alternate intermediaries?
We did speak with other models in the country, for example, Gram Vaani, Dimagi, and Digital Greens. Most of them work with peer educators or health service providers or they are generating content from the community, which is largely around governance or agriculture, and not so much around women’s rights and issues of gender and sexuality. We are now thinking about the alternative option, if we still want to go ahead with using this technology.
Providing information directly to adolescent girls is a very difficult terrain — because of the topic and because they are minors. We have not finalised the format we want to use. Now it’s more about the approach to this work.
Based on the study and CREA’s work so far, do you think that the use of ICTs looks promising for the dissemination of information pertaining to sex education, sexual health or reproductive health?
We, within CREA, are definitely interested exploring more about how we can use technology. This study has really helped us see that maybe adolescent girls is not the first step to begin with, the first audience or the first end user we want to reach out to; we will think of an alternative approach.
We believe that technology should be used now. It is a great medium to amplify your message.