Seeds of Awareness: Nurturing Holistic Sexual Health
Why are we uncomfortable speaking to family about sex? What does it mean to be sexually healthy? Should schools be teaching sex ed? So many questions, so few talking!
Luckily, there are a few bold women tackling this sensitive and important issue in the Indian education space. One shining example is Seeds of Awareness LLP (SOA), a social enterprise focused on delivering holistic sexual health education and awareness workshops to schools, NGOs, and corporates in Mumbai.
I feel extremely fortunate to have spent time this week catching up with the founders of SOA, talking to them about the philosophy of their workshops, memorable moments, and the diverse, quickly evolving sexual health landscape.
Two motivated and inspiring women—Shalaka Sisodia and Dr. Anvita Madan-Bahel—launched Seeds of Awareness in 2007. SOA came to life through Anvita’s PhD research at Columbia University. Wanting to work with survivors of sexual violence in South Asian communities, Anvita quickly realised that the core issues of sexual violence were hard to approach in a culture where there was no space to even talk about sex. She explains:
In a culture with strong intergenerational conflicts and morality issues around dating and sex, how do we create safe spaces that allow people to open up about their issues without feeling judged or pressured? For example, even if a woman knows what a condom is, if she doesn’t feel comfortable or empowered enough to have a conversation about contraception with her partner, or go and buy condoms at the store for fear of judgement at her local pharmacy, then there is very little use of her knowing about the condom in the first place! Therefore, sexual health is not enough—we must incorporate and tackle the issues around culture and gender as well.
With this view in mind, SOA devised a range of dynamic curricula for holistic sexual health education, encompassing ethnic identity, gender issues, and culture. Their workshops include topics such as gender dynamics, adolescent development, relationships, self-esteem, body image, and sexual violence—all specifically tailored to the Indian context.
A unique aspect to their holistic sexual health programs is that they do not separate boys and girls. In fact, they use these sessions to facilitate open dialogue between the sexes so that both can understand and develop empathy for each other’s needs and desires.
In our conversation, Shalaka—SOA’s expert workshop facilitator—repeatedly highlighted the importance of mindfulness in creating a space with no judgement in the classroom. She uses culturally relevant tools, such as film clips from Bollywood, theatre workshops, and dance movement therapy, in combination with exercises around trust, and power dynamics. The different activities allow participants to set their own rules for the group, taking confidentiality pledges and so on.
Asked about her most memorable sessions, Shalaka shared a story about Bal Jeevan Trust, an NGO working with and for the welfare of rag pickers. Not anticipating the number of sexual survivors and high-risk members in the group, Shalaka was left in awe at the number of people—both men and women—who shared their experiences of abuse. Most impactful was the disturbing realization that boys and men have a much more difficult time sharing their experiences of abuse. The need to raise awareness and create safer spaces for male survivors left a deep impression on her as a facilitator and is something SOA is consciously aware of in their workshops.
Since they have been in the sexual health landscape for the last eight years, it was also interesting to hear Anvita and Shalaka’s takeaways on how India has changed in the last few years in relation to sexual health. Both were quick to point out the Nirbhaya case and social media bullying as being some of the biggest game changers in the awareness and need to discuss sexual health. They also mentioned younger children’s increase in exposure to pornography, and the need to council both children and parents to be able to discuss sex and pornography in a way that cultivate healthy attitudes.
Seeds of Awareness will co-facilitate Badal Ja’s! Small Steps event this Thursday, September 11th: Creating sex positive dialogue in our communities. We’ll be at the Center for Documentation and Education, Colaba, at 7:30 pm onwards. If you’ve got something to say on sex, we want to hear it!