India has made significant strides towards recognizing sexual rights over the past decade, but cultural, policy, and social challenges continue to limit progress. Child marriage persists, even though it is illegal. Some 47 percent of the nation’s 20–24-year-old women were married before the age of 18, and 40 percent of young women report having had sex by this age. Yet, most youth—especially young women and girls—have limited access to sexual and reproductive health information and services. This is particularly concerning because India has the world’s largest population of young people ages 10–19: 243 million.
TARSHI (Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues) works towards expanding sexual and reproductive choices in people’s lives in an effort to enable them to enjoy lives of dignity and freedom from fear and infection. TARSHI’s work on sexuality is from an affirmative and rights-based perspective, differing from other organizations that often restrict discussion of sexuality to disease prevention, violence against women, or sexual minorities.
TARSHI was founded in 1996 by Radhika Chandiramani through a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation. Responding to the vast need, Chandiramani created a telephone helpline that provided sexual and reproductive health information, counseling, and referrals to other resources and support. The helpline was active for 13 years, and over this time, the organization expanded. TARSHI now does training and public education on gender and sexuality issues throughout India and in the South and Southeast Asia region.
TARSHI supports and enables people's control and agency over their sexual and reproductive health and well -being through information dissemination, knowledge, and perspective building, within a human rights framework.
Soon after TARSHI started the helpline, it got requests from schools to conduct educational sessions on sexuality issues for students. "When we started to go to schools and listened to young people, we realized there wasn't information for them that was simple, easy-to-understand, and matter-of-fact," said Executive Director Prabha Nagaraja. So TARSHI developed two guidebooks that were published in 1999, one for youth ages 10–14 and one for those 15 and above. These books explain in clear, youth-friendly language basic principles about the body, sexuality, and gender. The books were published in English and Hindi, and their value is evident; over the years, they have been translated into six other Indian languages and reprinted several times. The book for those 15 and older has been downloaded nearly 38,000 times from the TARSHI website and the one for young adolescents was downloaded more than 29,000 times.
TARSHI's impact extends to the policy level as well. It has been actively involved in advocating for sexuality education in schools. In 2005, India rolled out its Adolescent Education Program, the largest program addressing sexuality education in the country and a major step forward. But the program met with significant backlash from conservative governments and groups, with several states banning the program and use of the school curricula. A few years later, a committee was set up to examine the ban and make recommendations. TARSHI was among several NGOs that submitted petitions to this committee, advocating strongly for sexuality education. The curriculum subsequently was modified to eliminate some of the more “controversial” concepts.
IWHC is currently supporting TARSHI to update its youth-centered guidebooks and to mobilize young people to make the case that comprehensive sexuality education should be available in schools.