The Drugs Control Department of Karnataka has issued a circular to pharmacists in the state prohibiting them from selling oral contraceptives (such as the i-pill and birth control pills), condoms, and anti-depressants to those below the age of 18. This was a reactionary directive following an incident at a school where the school authorites found condoms, cigarettes and whiteners in the bags of certain students.
According to public health expert, Dr. Sylvia Karpagam, the steady rise in awareness about contraceptives in the state over the past decade was largely attributable to ASHA workers, who began their work in 2005 (source).
However, in October 2022, a survey revealed that 45% of the men in the age group of 15-19 years believed that “contraception is a woman’s business and a man should not have to worry about it”. (source).
In the face of misinformation, lack of sex-ed resources and contraception education, it is often women (and people with uterus) who end up getting sterilised. In fact, according to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5, undertaken in 2019-20), 57% of the women in Karnataka undergo sterilisation procedures (a.k.a. tubectomies), which is higher than the national count of 38% (source). Tubectomies are more complicated and lengthier than vasectomies (for people with penises) and can also lead to complications like bladder infections and other consequences if the patients have pre-existing conditions like diabetes or anemia. Possible long-term effects include ectopic pregnancies and menstrual disturbances. Vasectomies done through the no-scalpel technique do not even require incisions or stitches, and patients often return to their daily life a day or 2 after the operation.
Given the state of reproductive health in the state, one wonders if the ban on access to contraceptives for teens is a sensible idea. What if a teen gets pregnant as a result of not having access to contraceptives or due to a sexual assault? Will abortion services be provided while ensuring their safety and privacy? What about STDs?
These questions need to be raised in the face of the NFHS-5 data from the state, which showed that 21% of the girls are married before the age of 18 (source). Public health experts often advocate delaying pregnancies at least till the age of 18, making this a cause for concern. Pregnancy rates from 5 districts in the state that were surveyed, showed no signs of dipping, when the results of the 4th and 5th NFHS were compared (conducted with a gap of 5 years). In fact, during the 4th survey, contraceptive use was calculated to be about 54.3%, whereas according to NFHS-5, this number had dropped to 50.1%. A casual analysis of this data might persuade most to improve access to contraceptives and related counselling, however the state authorities have chosen to take a different route in response to a single incident that is being interpreted as a malpractice.
As recent as August 2022, it was noted that the Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights was without a head (source). The Commission has an acting chairperson, which limits its scope of work such as taking suo moto cognizance of child rights violations in the state. The term of all 6 members of the commission too ended in July 2021. As a result, there are as many as 366 pending cases, which is the highest ever since the commission was formed in 2009 in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Commission receives an average of 15 cases per day, as per reports. After receiving flak, in October 2022, K. Naganna Gowda took charge (source). Several activists raised concerns about his qualifications to deal with POCSO cases. This was especially flagged when in December 2022, in Mandya, the headmaster of a school, who had a history of sexually harassing the students, was suspended after a group of girls chased him out and beat him up with brooms (source).
Following the incident of finding condoms in school bags, the members of Karnataka Private School College Parent Associations Coordination Committee urged the education minister to introduce state-prescribed sex-ed curriculum in schools, but to no avail (source). This seems to be in line with the State’s tradition of dismissing the importance of sex-education, as in 2007, the then-Minister for Primary and Secondary Education Basavaraj S. Horatti had rejected a programme proposed by the Union Government in cooperation with the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT) and the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), to provide sex-ed as part of a ‘life skills’ module targeting students between the age of 6 and 12. (source) Although, in 2015, the State decided to introduce a 16-hour manual pertaining to sex-education, it doesn’t seem like there has been a concerted effort to deal with the myriad of issues that confront young people in the state.
All things considered, this move of banning access to contraceptives can only be considered nonchalant of child rights in the state.