The mid-to-late 90s was a time of major cultural transformation in India. Mobile phones started to take off. Bollywood expanded its reach. Cosmopolitan magazine launched its India edition. But as the country began opening up to the world, HIV became a growing concern. Talking about sex was still very much taboo, and HIV was highly stigmatized. Misconceptions were rampant.
In this environment, Radhika Chandiramani—a clinical psychologist with an interest in sexuality and rights—recognized the vast need for accurate information and straight talk about sexuality issues. She founded TARSHI (Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues) in 1999, launching a telephone helpline with counselors providing information, advice, and referrals to health care providers.
“At the time, those working on HIV were uncomfortable talking about sexuality,” said Prabha Nagaraja, TARSHI’s Executive Director. “And there were very few organizations that spoke about sexual and reproductive health from a human rights perspective.”
TARSHI played a unique role because it didn’t frame sexual and reproductive health only around preventing HIV and other infections or avoiding unwanted pregnancy. Instead, the organization adopted a positive stance on sex and sexuality. In describing TARSHI’s vision, Nagaraja says, “We believe that all people have the right to sexual well-being, and self-affirming and enjoyable sexuality. ”
It took some time for TARSHI’s helpline to reach its target audience—women. “There was a lot of discomfort talking about sexuality on the phone with a stranger,” noted Nagaraja. Initially, only 5 percent of callers were female. There were practical barriers; women and girls would often have to call from home. If there was only a single phone in a public part of the house (like the living room), the woman may be reluctant to call. Whereas men had more options, they could call from outside the house—from public phones or their offices.
While mobile phones made it more feasible for women and girls to call, the attitudes and social barriers persisted. The helpline existed for 13 years, and over this period of time, the proportion of female callers increased to 20 percent, but never higher. At the same time, TARSHI realized that by talking to men they were also reaching their female partners if they were in heterosexual relationships.
TARSHI’s efforts weren’t limited to the helpline. The group developed publications for young people, a “Red Book” for children ages 10—14 and a “Blue Book” for young people 15 and up. They also published a guide for parents on how to talk to their kids about sexuality and one for teachers that helps them teach comprehensive sexuality education to their students. These guidebooks have been used in various parts of India and in the Southeast Asia region.
IWHC is currently supporting TARSHI to update its Red Book so that it is even more youth-friendly and fun, and to mobilize young people to make the case that comprehensive sexuality education should be available in schools. While there continues to be resistance from conservative elements of Indian society and members of the government, momentum is building among women and young people through social media, according to Nagaraja. “There is more and more recognition of how important it is to talk about these issues, especially in light of recent events—with sexual violence against women and girls being brought to everyone’s attention.”