The Age of Adolescents

The much-heralded Age of Adolescents has finally dawned. But it is not likely to usher in a brave new world because, notwithstanding the rhetoric, the grim reality is that though young people today constitute the largest-ever segment of the world population, they are not being truly empowered to lead their lives with dignity and freedom. ‘Empowerment,’ all are agreed, is the key word. If it is to be meaningful, we will have to shed our prejudices and redesign our socio-cultural and moral framework. Else, we will be swamped by a booming and rootless population. Unfortunately, we have not moved very far in this direction.

Come October 12, and we will have an unprecedented world population of six billion. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, the world population never exceeded one billion. Wars, pestilence, natural calamities, famine, a limited life span, all took their toll of the population, and in turn bequeathed a heavy socio-religio-cultural disposition towards large families. The role model of woman as child-bearer is a legacy of this human need to survive against all odds.

Tragically, tradition still bears down on us though the socio-cultural landscape has since transformed dramatically. Today, societies are being torn apart by the purported demands of faith/tradition on one side, and the shrill exhortations of pragmatism on the other. The first is rigid, and has little to offer by way of moral-spiritual sustenance beyond a tyrannical threat of loss of redemption/salvation. The second is often banal, and tends to get lost in statistics or self-righteousness. A new approach is needed, which can address the moral and the material landscape of ordinary men and women.

There is an urgent need to give the population debate a soul, so that it can appeal to men and women as moral-spiritual beings for whom family planning, contraception, and even abortion, are moral choices. Family planning must be liberated from the guilt that it violates an immutable moral precept, as well as from the perception that it is a purely secular decision, as this pits it against organized groups that claim that it violates God’s will. This false juxtaposition between Religion and Reason has proved the greatest stumbling block to birth control, even in developed nations. It is time to call the bluff.

All societies are based on reverence for life. This frequently translates into a belief that children are ‘gifts of God,’ as, in a sense, they are. But it also erroneously fosters the view that life in the womb must on no account be terminated, nor attempts made to inhibit conception, and this creates our present dilemma. How do we best demonstrate our respect for the dignity of human life? Do we regulate birth as we control other things in life, or do we breed ourselves to chronic starvation, ecological catastrophe, even extinction?

 Science has freed women from being hostage to unwanted pregnancies, and provided safe exit routes to victims of violence and lust. We can now regulate birth to suit our needs, which have changed because of improved health services. We know that over-population degrades human beings and destroys respect for life. Yet we complicate our lives with dogmas that deny us the chance to live our lives to the optimum.

The young, of course, are the worst affected. Some years ago, a 14-year-old rape victim, pregnant with a child she didn’t want, was almost prevented from having an abortion by religious busybodies in a conservative western nation. She was saved by courageous political intervention, but at the cost of a sharply divided nation. The moralists who called a minor schoolgirl’s abortion a subversion of God’s will were least concerned how cruelly a baby would impact her young life. Besides her physical, mental and emotional health, it would affect her basic education, negate the likelihood of higher education, and effectively disempower her for life.

Today, most baby boomers face this fate as governments face conservative opposition in providing youth with access to information about safe sex and relief from unwanted pregnancies. The recent UN General Assembly Special Session on the 1994 Cairo Population and Development Conference (30 June – 2 July 1999) discussed women’s rights to sexual and reproductive health, including the issues of abortion, rape and incest. The final document ruled that abortion should not be promoted as a means of family planning, though it is often the last resort of desperate women.

There was similar concern over HIV/AIDS, which afflicts over 47 million people worldwide, and has already claimed 14 million victims. Half the world’s new infections are among youth. Yet no real answers emerged, because of the fear of recognizing the sexual and reproductive health rights of adolescents, especially young women.

The issue of emergency contraceptives for young women was dodged at the Youth Forum at The Hague earlier in February also, despite being raised and approved from the floor. But it is now too late to debate whether youth should be having sex. With one billion adolescents in the reproductive age group, with one-tenths of all births being teenage pregnancies, with HIV/AIDS a grim universal reality, we cannot indulge in moral attitudes. If young people are having sex, we cannot deny them access to safe sex.

This issue is becoming controversial in India as well. The Union Health Ministry proposes to amend the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (MTP) to empower minor girls (married or unmarried) to have abortions without their guardians’ consent. The purpose is to check illegal abortions (eight out of ten abortions are illegal) and the high rate of maternal mortality (45 per 10,000) on account of childbirth to young, particularly teenaged mothers. Predictably, the amendment has fallen foul of a group called the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, which is threatening an agitation of the issue, on grounds that it will destroy the social fabric and promote ‘immorality’ among the youth.

However, one powerful consolation in India is that religion does not pamper obscurantism. The desire for a male child goes deep, and the common complaint of women with several daughters but helpless against further pregnancies, is that the husband wants a male child to continue the line and perform the last rites. Yet, in cities one finds daughters performing last rites in families where there is no male heir. Earlier, a male relation would be asked to do the honours.

My point is that whenever these breaches of convention take place, the officiating male priest at the ceremony graciously goes along with the spirit of the occasion and the times. There is no known instance of his citing chapter and verse of the scriptures to obstruct this development. Thus, even as India gears up to face a one billion population at the turn of the century, it is quietly chiseling away at the foundations of the social order that made this possible.

I conclude with the Japanese philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda: “it is by no means certain that methods good in one historical age will be appropriate in another. The true spirit of religion is to adopt only those measures that protect the dignity of life.” It is high time we stopped defending coercive motherhood as a religious value, and promote sexual and reproductive health programmes for the young, as an investment in the future.

3 Aug 1999, The Pioneer

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