On January 20, the Karnataka Drug Control Department (KDCD) had reportedly issued a circular prohibiting the sale of contraceptives and condoms to anyone under the age of eighteen. The contentious directive, which spurred many debates about undesired pregnancies and the risk of sexually transmitted diseases (STD), was quickly reversed.
More fittingly, KDCD categorically denied ever issuing a circular forbidding pharmacists from selling condoms, oral contraceptives, and antidepressants to minors.
Earlier, media reports had indicated that the above-mentioned order was issued after state pharmaceuticals controller in-charge Bhagoji T Khanapure was cited as saying, “The state government is promoting condoms to prevent sexually transmitted illnesses and for population control. However, it is not suitable for teenagers or school children.”
According to the Bangalore Mirror, Khanapure claimed unequivocally that a circular was issued stating explicitly that contraceptives should not be sold to underage minors. “We have not issued any circular to that effect,” Khanapure later stated. This has been misreported in the media.” Refuting the claims on the ban, the DCD said that there is no ban on contraception and that it has merely issued a notice to pharmacists, directing them to counsel minors buying the said materials.
The circular was reportedly issued following the discovery of condoms, contraceptives, cigarettes, and whiteners in the backpacks of school students in November of last year when a surprise check to prevent children from bringing cell phones to class left Bengaluru school officials taken aback as in addition to cell phones, authorities discovered condoms, oral contraceptives, lighters, cigarettes, and whiteners in the backpacks of kids from Classes 8, 9, and 10 standards. This case led to concerns about health, addiction, and future of the kids.
Opposition by experts
Soon after the claimed directive was issued, experts and pharmacists condemned it, claiming that it would only lead to an increase in unwanted pregnancies and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI).
Some argue that the prohibition will be ineffective because condoms and contraception are available at all retailers, not just pharmacies. According to a New Indian Express report, they are also over-the-counter sale items that do not require a prescription.
Some pharmacists also stated that it is difficult for them to distinguish between consumers who arrive dressed in civic attire and those who do not. Khanpure added that the ban did not only apply to condoms and contraception, but also to cigarettes.
Tanushree, a certified Comprehensive Sex Educator (CSE) working in the field of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), voiced grave concerns about the DCD’s decision in Karnataka. Tanushree stated, as reported by Outlook, that while there is a legal ambiguity in the event of two consenting kids engaging in sexual activity, regressive judgements cannot serve the objective of prohibiting adolescents or teenagers from engaging in harmful sexual practices.
“Not only can barrier methods (male or female condoms) prevent pregnancy, but they also prevent the spread of STDs or STIs. Our greatest chance is to engage with children and encourage safer sexual practices, as well as to empower minors to make decisions about their own bodies” Tanushree was quoted saying.
Apurva Vivek, a Jharkhand-based lawyer, started her own group, Hashiya, to promote safe abortions in the state. As reported by Outlook, Vivek took a firm stand against the prohibition. “Why do you despise women so much?” she inquired. “I don’t believe this ban was given any thought. It is now widely accepted that restricting access to contraception does not prohibit individuals from having sex; it only prevents safe sex. It’ll be a bag of worms that none of us will know what to do with. Pregnancies in adolescence, maternal fatalities, unsafe abortions, school dropouts, STIs, and other consequences will all skyrocket. Why do we continue to punish women’s bodies in order to satisfy our moral compass? If we are so disturbed by young people having sex, why don’t we make comprehensive sex education available in schools? I also wonder what directions pharmacies are going to receive in case the minor requesting contraceptives is a married girl,” she added pointing to the problem of child marriages in India. “Will they be asking for a marriage certificate along with the proof of age?” Vivek asked, as reported by Outlook.
Was this the right move?
According to the National Family Health Survey-5, Karnataka has a 5.4 percent adolescent pregnancy rate, while India has a 7% teen pregnancy rate. Teenage pregnancies are also greater in rural India, at 8%, than in urban India, at 4%.
India has recently surpassed China as the world’s most populous country. The above-mentioned Karnataka DCD judgment is frightening and dangerous because it constitutes a potential threat to population control. Such decisions undermined prior governments’ efforts to promote and use condoms, contraception, and safe sexual behaviors at the highest levels.
The issuance of this order by the Karnataka DCD was a knee-jerk reaction to finding condoms in the bags of student during the surprise search. Sex is, and has been, a “taboo” in India. On a daily basis, multiple news is reported of minors getting pregnant and being forced to opt for unsafe abortions or taking gruesome steps after the child is born. In a country where people are fighting for getting appropriate access to sex education and information, such steps further hamper the efforts that are being made. Just like the ban on porn, the government, through the ban on condoms and contraceptives, has targeted and buried the wrong issue.
The Indian government and Indian education system is already doing a poor job at educating the younger generation on issues related to intercourse, consent, safe sex – this ban would have further distanced them from even having access to contraceptives, resulting in more unwanted pregnancies and opting for unsafe abortion methods.
As always, this ban, which was levied by a man, would have more consequences for the women than the men involved, as the women will have to suffer through shame, isolation, and even drop out of schools. This ban is also a classic example of how we are failing to adopt with changing times. It is essential that such steps are nipped in the bud, and instead, our focus shifts on providing appropriate education to the younger generation and teaching them about good/bad touch. Instead of asking pharmacists, who are not fully equipped with the required knowledge to counsel minors on sex, the Karnataka government should be encouraging the students to initiate conversation around sex with actual counsellors.