Let’s Talk about the “S” Word

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With the narrowing of the digital divide, people increasingly use the World Wide Web to acquire information on their health and wellbeing. In countries like Bangladesh, where shame and stigma still remain a major barrier to accessing information and services for sexual reproductive health (SRH), the Internet is serving as a platform for young people to find the information they need without fear of judgement. But in the absence of proper guidance and SRH education in the national curriculum, it is difficult for people to navigate through the sea of information and evaluate which sources are reliable.

A recent study has explored the contents of SRH information urban Bangladeshi youth seek, and the platforms where they want to receive the information. Researchers conducted focus group discussions with over 200 young men and women from 11 universities, schools and youth-based organisations in Dhaka and Chittagong. This study was led by BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health’s (JPGSPH) Centre of Excellence for Gender, Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (CGSRHR).

The findings revealed that urban youth are in desperate need for more information on SRHR. Perpetuation of cultural taboo around SRH issues has led to communication barriers between youth and their parents or guardians and teachers. Most parents do not inform their children of pubertal changes, nor do they engage in open discussions about SRH issues. Although the secondary school curriculum generally includes content on the human reproductive system and HIV/AIDs, teachers in public schools tend to avoid addressing these topics. Moreover, there is a complete absence of sexuality education in the national curriculum. There are even barriers to obtaining SRH information from medical professionals – it was reported that doctors are often judgmental if an unmarried person seeks medical help on a SRH problem.

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The findings also show common themes in the platforms preferred by urban youth – they want a digital “safe space” which is easily accessible and anonymous, such as Google for example. Proponents of the search engine enjoy the ease of acquiring information at their own discretion. However, young people agree that the information should be taken with a “pinch of salt” since it is not always accurate.

Social media is another popular platform to gather SRH information. Facebook is one of the most widely and frequently used social media platforms, and is sometimes used as a source of information by urban youth. This is worrisome since the contents of Facebook are user-generated, it can reflect people’s biases and misconception; Facebook is therefore not a reliable source of SRH information. Moreover, due to the public interface of the platform, participants reported that when they post questions regarding SRH on Facebook groups, they are worried about stigmatisation from other users.

Young people have advocated for SRH information to be presented in an audio-visual format, for example as YouTube videos or short films. The believe that audio-visuals allow effective communication by providing the information in a digestible way, and can create a more lasting impression than text. Due to YouTube’s algorithm, a YouTube search will first show the videos which has the highest “Watch Time” (which is determined by how long viewers have watched a video for). Therefore, users will end up watching the videos which are trending, but these videos are not necessarily reliable as the contents are not verified.

Another audio-visual source of information is pornography. Although pornography was generally perceived by respondents as “vulgar” or “wrong” they admitted that they still view it is as one of the sources of information easily available to them about sex. Pornography tends to misrepresent human sexuality, and can lead to misconceptions about gender and sexuality.

Overall, the research pinpoints clear gaps in the country’s sex education. It is clear that young people are already seeking SRH information, therefore it is important to help them find the right information so they can make better informed decisions. Educational reform is required where sex education is incorporated into the curricula, and the young peoples’ information-seeking preferences need to considered when doing this.

Opponents of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) claim that it would encourage young people to have sex. However, UNESCO has cited research which has shown that CSE can actually delay young people engaging in sex, does not make teenagers more sexually active, and reduces risky behaviour. Discussions with young people has shown that the urban youth want more information, and the Government has finally recognised the need for CSE in its National Strategy for Adolescent Health 2017-2030; although effectively implementation of the policies will likely be difficult in practice, it still makes Bangladesh one step closer in achieving the milestone of overcoming cultural barriers and de-stigmatising sex.


This blog was written by Anushka Zafar, Communications and Knowledge Manager at BRAC JPGSPH, and Kaushik Ahmed, Intern at BRAC JPGSPH. 

It was originally published in the Dhaka Tribune newspaper here: https://www.dhakatribune.com/magazine/weekend-tribune/2018/05/06/lets-talk-s-word/ 

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