"Poster design and illustration on health issues have dominated my work since 1988. I was surprised when much of the communication material I designed was not being understood by my audience of non-literate rural people in southern Rajasthan," confesses visual communicator Lakshmi Murthy, who set up Vikalp Design at Udaipur. "Then, I made the 'field' my teacher. This taught me to re-look, to relearn communication through rural communities."
The dissemination of Murthy's experiences formed the hub of the 'Design, Discovery and Delight' workshop held in Bangalore recently. A McArthur Foundation fellow, her fellowship focus was on the self-perceptions of non-literate and literate young rural folk about their reproductive health, which evolved into creative communication tools.
The result? Murthy reinterpreted the 'kaanvad' - the Rajasthani, cupboard-like, unfolding narrative device, traditionally used to tell epic stories - to put across contraception choices and the stages of physical growth. Besides, she put together two books - 'Sundari' and 'Sundar' - and a CD-Rom, illustrating the female and male body.
"I learned that nude pictures of the human body cause embarrassment. Villagers are too shy to listen to the health instructor pointing to the picture," says Lakshmi. "So, I clothed the nude figures. The skirts could be lifted to view the body underneath."
Murthy's co-coordinator at the workshop was Bangalore-based filmmaker and social activist Kirtana Kumar of the Women Artists' Group. Her film, 'Guhya', explores the idea of an affirmative female sexuality through a journey from North Karnataka to Kerala and finally to Kamakhya, a Shakti peeth (sacred site) in Assam. Currently working on a project on adolescent sexuality in Karnataka, Kumar and her colleagues have distributed digital video (DV) cameras to their subjects to turn the lens inwards, to explore "who sees what and how."
Globally, 15 to 24-year-olds today number 1.7 billion. Half of all new HIV/AIDS cases occur in this age group. About 15 million young women in the 15-19 age group deliver a baby every year. India has an adolescent population of 200 million, and its 10 to 24-year-olds number over 300 million.
Why are programs on sexual education important today? To impart factual, non-judgemental and reliable information and life skills, and to fulfill the students' expressed needs in the short term, Kumar says. And the long-term objectives are to strengthen communication between adults and young people on the most sensitive, least-addressed social space between human beings. For young people to negotiate safe spaces for themselves. To accept responsibility for their own actions, and develop safe practices.
Within our changing times, "Children are subjected to a range of sexually explicit and gender-biased messages in their daily lives, and they do not have the skills to be discerning," Kumar stresses. That turned the focus on the workshop's core issue - finding new media for alternate messages.
Amongst about 20 people at the workshop was Manish Kumar from Lucknow's Indian Institute of Young Inspirers, who uses board games, magic tricks and ventriloquism to communicate messages about HIV/AIDS and sexual health, often aboard trains or around circus camps. Also represented was Goa's Sangath Society for Child Development and Family Guidance, noted for its seminal work on paedophilia.
What was the workshop about? These teachers and NGOs, social activists and public health workers from Baroda, Delhi, Kolkata and Sangli, Lucknow, Bangalore, Chennai, Udaipur exchanged ideas on media for reproductive health and sexual health education.
Noted psychiatrist and activist Dr Shekar Sheshadri of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences (NIMHANS) led one session. He demonstrated how any methodology for such messages had to grow out of a relevant content and context. His handpicked contexts were street children, the HIV/AIDS program and child sexual abuse (CSA). Stressing the need for sexual sensitization vis-ï¿½-vis reproductive biology, he unleashed a slew of provocative questions. Among them: Why is female affirmative sexuality not recognized? Within the embattled arena of CSA, how does society expect a child to give a context to the least discussed of human interactions?
Ellavarthi Manohar of Bangalore's Sangama opened up another aspect to the socially divisive debate. His emphasis was on sexual minorities - homosexuals, bisexuals, lesbians, gays, transsexuals, transvestites and other transgender people. He sought answers to: Why is homosexuality criminalized under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code? Why do Indian families push their different-by-choice children into heterosexual marriages? How do people cope with misinformation and outdated treatment for alternate sexuality?
Beyond the learning, the singing, and the films in the evenings, how did participants respond? "I've seen the agony of adolescents at close quarters. I'd now like to figure out ways for adolescents to grow up with greater self-esteem, to be more independent," sums up Girija Giri, from CHETNA (Centre for Health Education, Training and Nutrition Awareness) Vadodara. "We'd have to adapt specific media for the task."
School-level sexual education, the workshop emphasized, can no longer be sidelined within the Indian context. How this vulnerable age group can access reliable and value-free information through medico and psycho-social services, is a challenge to every individual who works within the adolescent context.
"As literacy levels improve," notes Murthy, "experiments with perception and visual literacy will need to be redone. Working with teenagers is the most challenging, as they are constantly looking for answers, reasons and explanations. The question is: Are communicators ready to listen to these new voices?"