Let’s talk about sex: TARSHI turns 25

Delhi-based NGO TARSHI completes 25 years of advocating for people’s rights to sexual wellbeing and creating the resources to make this possible

On February 14, 1996, when Valentine’s Day was still about love (as opposed to coupon deals for takeaway food in 2021), a group of people came together, hoping to elevate the quality of conversations around sexuality — so far whispered, incomplete and uncomfortable. It all began with a phone helpline.

“We launched a helpline focussing on sexuality and reproductive health, offering free information, counselling, and referrals by trained counsellors. It guaranteed anonymity and confidentiality, two aspects that were and are very important to people when they discuss sexuality,” says Radhika Chandiramani, founder of the helpline she named TARSHI: Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues.

Twenty-five years on, the TARSHI helpline has evolved into an NGO in Delhi that has consistently been creating reliable safe spaces for questions, dialogue, and credible resources. The belief being that “all people have the right to sexual wellbeing and to a self-affirming and enjoyable sexuality”. Adds Radhika, “Work on sexual and reproductive health and rights should not be restricted to a ‘disease-prevention’, ‘violence against women or sexual minorities’ framework, but be inclusive of a broader and an affirmative, rights-based perspective.”

Looking for resource material?

  • TARSHI’s signature publications include:
  • The Red Book for 10-14 year-olds, to guide them through all the changes they are experiencing.
  • The Blue Book for those older than 15 years, and on the journey to adulthood.
  • The Yellow Book for adults who want to start a conversation on sexuality with younger people.
  • The Orange Book for teachers/ sexuality educators to explore their own doubts about gender, sex, and sexuality.
  • Their digital magazine, In Plainspeak, chooses a theme related to sexuality each month: from singlehood, ageing, vulnerability to even food, drinks and data. You can contribute your ideas to [email protected].

The TARSHI team looks back on its 25 years of work in this space. Edited excerpts from an interview:

When you began in the 1990s, HIV/AIDS epidemic was one of the biggest concerns in India. Today, the conversation around it has reduced, as has the number of cases. Do you think that a sustained dialogue on this is still as important?

Prabha Nagaraja (PN), executive director:

Yes, because prevention is always better than having to deal with large numbers of infection; HIV has not been eradicated from the world like, say, smallpox which means it can flare up in any generation/region/community or at any time if basic precautions are not consistently maintained. More importantly, sustained dialogue on HIV opens the door to conversations on consensual sexual activity, respect for diversity of sexual expression, safer sex and contraceptive choices.

Looking back, do you recall any pivotal contributions to Indian policies on sexual health and rights?

Radhika Chandiramani (RC), psychologist, founder:

It would be arrogant of us to claim any particular incidents as a ‘success’ on account of our work, but yes, we have been bringing about more open discussions about sexuality, training teachers on being more comfortable to provide comprehensive sexuality education, offering parents ideas about how to talk to their children about sexuality and so on.

The pandemic drew special attention to our overall wellness. Is TARSHI’s resource material being updated for a post-pandemic world?

PN and Vani Viswanathan, programme manager: We have been focussing our attention on creating resources to help activists and service providers, as well as anyone feeling the stress of these exceptional times. Our new website, Self-care Essentials was put together as countries worldwide went into various stages of restrictions on movement due to the COVID-19 pandemic, pushing millions into precarity in terms of health, finances, and livelihoods. Those doing people-work had to contend with increased vulnerability of the people with whom they worked; with working from home/limited mobility; and with the stresses caused by the pandemic.

Burnout is becoming common in most places of work, but what are the stressors unique to your field of advocacy?

Shikha Aleya, senior programme associate:

Pushing the boundaries of taboo subjects within one’s own community, neighbours, families and peers, is the first challenge. Another massive stressor is the presence of conflict and violence in many places; these elements are unique to regions, and population groups. Working on a taboo subject within these powerful and overwhelmingly larger dynamics, involves a constant state of awareness of, and dealing with, risk and threat at physical, social, emotional, and mental levels.

Many individuals who work in this field come from a personal space of struggle in their own lives, with issues of identity at a deep level, and yet they are expected to put the ‘personal’ aside in a skewed understanding of the ‘professional’, an understanding that is borrowed from the traditions of other sectors of work such as industrial. This is simply untenable in the long term. The ‘professional’ in this sector is constantly facing reminders (some people refer to this as triggers) of personal stress and trauma.

How have dating apps, prominent in Tier 1 and 2 cities, influenced sexual health?

Anisha Dutt, senior programme associate:

Especially last year with a pandemic at hand, people’s world has moved online, including dating. On the one hand, we have newer, faster, and innovative ways of asserting our agency in expressing ourselves, and connecting with like-minded people, especially for LGBTQIA+ folk, and on the other, being ‘online’ has opened discussions around accessibility, privacy, anonymity, surveillance, and so on. We will address ‘Data and Sexuality’ in the May issue of our magazine, In Plainspeak.

Two years after the #MeToo movement in India, has the conversation on sexual rights and consent moved forward?

Anjali Hans, programme associate:

In a sense, there hasn’t really been an “after” to #MeToo. While it made room for many survivors of sexual violence to speak out and take charge of their narratives, we must keep in mind the socio-economic profile of people who were an active part of the movement and examine the ways in which #MeToo has nurtured spaces to have difficult conversations, and not simply online. There is no one way #MeToo has changed the landscape of sexual violence, especially in India. However, it has undoubtedly asked us some sobering questions around agency, consent, and bodily integrity.

We lost many loved personalities in 2020, and one of them was ‘sexologist’ Dr Mahinder Watsa…

RC: Dr Watsa was a really lovely man — a man of few words, but they were always well-chosen words. He was a gynaecologist and obstetrician by training and as early as 1974, he persuaded the Family Planning Association of India to set up a programme on sexuality education and counselling. His answers to queries about sex were always fact-based, to the point, and often tempered with well-deserved compassion or an impatient dry humour.

Visit tarshi.net or call 011 26324023 for help.

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