ISLAMABAD: The world of youth sexual health is a secret and whimsical place. Even though issues related to sexual health among unmarried people are considered mostly taboo, it is a whole world that very much exists - along with all its problems and difficulties.
The biggest problem, as Yusra Aziz, a psychologist who provides guidance to youth, explained, is the sheer lack of information on basic things like puberty, sexually transmitted diseases, fertility etc. “As we grow, we go through serious changes in our body but in most cases are not given any information about it. This makes natural changes a scary process and sometimes leads to the youth reverting to unsafe practices.”
To address the severe lack of knowledge among the youth about their own sexual health, various NGOs have started different initiatives to create awareness through workshops, pamphlets, brochures and peer-to-peer knowledge etc.The most interesting, however, is the Rahnumma toll-free helpline - 0800-444-88. The helpline meant to answer questions about sexual reproductive health of youth who feel they do not have any other source of guidance. The toll-free number provides a professional counselor to answer simple questions for information as well as provide guidance to those who find themselves facing difficulties they are unsure what to do about.
In Rahnumma’s Islamabad office located in a separate three-room building behind the Family Health Hospital in I-10, friendly services are provided to the youth. Inside, comfortable black leather chairs welcome anyone in while a separate room provides room to talk to the counselor.
“Do you have visitors and calls on the helpline?” I asked the counselor. “Oh yes,” she replied, “regularly.” I was curious, “What kind of things do they ask about?” “Many different things,” she replied.
In January alone, the helpline received 52 calls and 48 visitors. Of these, 23 had questions about masturbation, 17 came with issues of abuse, 22 with violence and 14 with family problems. Those with actual questions about reproductive health etc., were smaller and totaled 11.
Such frequent calls and visitors reveal that there is a vacuum of guidance regarding sexual health issues that affect everyone. The fact that the current education curriculum refuses to acknowledge the issue of sexual health at all or provide education about it does not help.
As representatives of Rahnuma are eager to point out; the reluctance of legislators to address this issue means that this situation is not about to change any time soon.
But the helpline is doing more than providing a mere individually customised database of information. The number of people who come with issues related to violence and abuse etc., show that Rahnuma is providing an important service. In many cases, the psychologist refers to appropriate doctors or other NGOs in serious cases of violence or abuse. “Sometimes we have people come to us about incidents of abuse that happened during their childhood but is still causing them stress and they need to resolve them - so they can talk to us,” explained the counselor.
“What about family problems? What kind of family problems do people call about?” I asked her. “Disagreements, often regarding marriage issue…One girl calls me regularly because her parents won’t let her marry the guy of her choice. But she remains disturbed and also has a tendency to hurt herself. So she calls me every month or so and vents to me and I can tell that helps.”
She has also dealt with women seeking abortion, given counseling to victims of domestic abuse and referred such women to suitable shelters. “But a lot of times, the only help they get is limited to me - we provide free service but the doctor we might refer them to does not so they cannot continue counseling anymore,” she explained.
“So do you think you are having an impact?” The counselor and her colleague Danish Hameed Afaqi, Chairperson Youth Member National Executive Council of Rahnuma, replied: “Right now we don’t have as many calls as we would if people could call us from their mobiles.
They can only call us from their PTCL and that makes it difficult for the youth to have privacy, but we are negotiating with the telecom companies so that will change soon.”
Besides, Danish added, this helpline is not the only way of spreading awareness. “The helpline is in addition to workshops that we set up in rural areas, slums, universities etc., our peer-to-peer network of volunteers who also help spread awareness and now the comprehensive sexual education programme we are launching.”
“At the end of the day, 64% of Pakistani population is youth, and youth friendly services need to be institutionalised,” added Danish.