January 27, 2022

Niyati Sharma was 16 when she first realized people didn’t talk about sexual health the same way elsewhere in the world. At home in India, they didn’t really talk about it at all – and that was the problem. The third year UBC undergraduate was on an exchange to Belgium when her host mom offered the host sister condoms and a few words of advice in a casual, embarrassment-free exchange. 

“I was completely taken aback,” recalls Sharma, now a psychology and international relations double major student doing a co-op term at Iridia Medical in Vancouver, who applied to UBC as a way to see Canada. “These were conversations no one (in India) was having. It was a revelation not to feel so judged.”

Photo: Niyati Sharma, Pratisandhi

UBC undergrad Niyati Sharma started her non-profit when she was in the 12th grade (photo: Niyati Sharma/Pratisandhi)

Back in Delhi, Sharma broached the subject with her mother, a gynecologist. She was amazed at the disconnect between what her doctor mom was telling her and what she was seeing online. Sharma began joining conversations on social media, offering As to the many Qs Indian teens had, and clearing up misinformation through an anonymous Google form. Patterns soon emerged: lots of questions about masturbation, for one, and queries such as, can you use a plastic bag as a condom? That led to a popular Instagram page, followed by educational workshops and the birth of Pratisandhi, Sharma’s Delhi-based non-profit founded when she was in 12th grade. 

The 80-person, volunteer, youth-run organization focuses on comprehensive sexual education for adolescents and young adults, with the aim of empowering fellow youth to make informed decisions about their sexual health without fear. Pratisandhi offers stand-alone workshops, moderator training and awareness campaigns, as well as customizable three-month intervention programs for schools, orphanages and shelters. Sessions cover traditionally taboo topics along the lines of menstruation, safe sex, puberty, body image, consent and sexually transmitted infections. A recent Pratisandhi Instagram post, for example, reads: “There is no shame in having an STD. One in two sexually active people will contract an STD by age 25, and most are cured quickly!”

Now in its third year, Pratisandhi – the name means the transition between two ages, as well as resistance – is getting noticed. Sharma is surfacing in news stories and publications such as Forbes India. In June 2021, she released her first book, Under the Carpet: The Sex Ed Everyone Needs, on Amazon. And the accolades are rolling in. Sharma received a prestigious 2021 Diana Award – in honour of the late Princess of Wales recognizing individuals 9 to 24 years old worldwide doing exceptional social action or humanitarian work in their own communities. Last December, UBC singled out Sharma for her leadership with an International Community Achievement Award, and the Faculty of Arts gave her an International Student Scholarship for academic achievement. 

Photo: Niyati Sharma, Pratisandhi

Based in Delhi, India, Pratisandhi is 100 percent youth-led and volunteer-run (photo: Pratisandhi)

The affable 21-year-old, who smiles often and laughs easily, will also be the very first guest on the upcoming UBC Global podcast, hosted by Murali Chandrashekaran from the Office of the Vice-Provost International, debuting in 2022.

“Basically, we want to encourage conversation about sexual health in the public sphere,” Sharma says. “We started with the premise: Let’s imagine the sex ed we wish we would’ve had… then we look at existing curriculum and what other countries are doing.”

That is not always easy, though – “challenging” is the norm. Many Indian parents don’t want outsiders talking to their teens about sex. There’s also widespread misunderstanding about what the term “sex ed” means. While pregnancy and safe sex are mostly condoned topics for schools, anything beyond that is often met with opposition. The fact that Bollywood messages around consent are murky and mixed doesn’t help, Sharma says. And although Pratisandhi’s programs target Indian youth, many of these same misconceptions are prevalent around the world, she also notes. 

“Medically-driven information is often absent, as is judgment-free education,” Sharma says. “That piece is missing universally. The question is, what are the consequences of not providing that information? Having these conversations normalizes it and allows people to explore sexuality in a safe, healthy way.”

Just one percent of young, unmarried Indian women get sexual and reproductive health information from their mothers, doctors or government campaigns, according to a survey outlined in an Inter Press Service global news agency article. And nearly all, 95 percent, have never consulted with a gynocologist on matters of sex, contraception or pleasure. Compounding that is a widely acknowledged lack of accurate, age-appropriate sexuality education, according to The Zero Period, a Delhi non-profit aiming to reverse that.

In fact, there are several Indian organizations working to educate on all the related stigmatized issues – consent, abuse, sexuality – such as The Zero Period, Karishma Swarup’s Talk You Never Got and VexEd India. Pratisandhi stands out because it is 100 percent youth-led, and among the largest of the nonprofits tackling these issues. Pratisandhi also aligns its work with the UN Sustainable Development Goals 3, 4 and 5 – around good health and wellbeing, quality education and gender equality.

Photo: Niyati Sharma, Pratisandhi

Pratisandhi is about empowering youth to make informed decisions about their sexual health without fear (photo: Niyati Sharma, Pratisandhi)

At the outset, Sharma had no intention of starting a not-for-profit venture. She just wanted to clear up common misperceptions – and help her peers with lots of questions, few answers and an excess of erroneous information. Leaving young people’s questions unanswered would only lead them into dangerous situations, she reasoned. But running an organization from afar has been a rollercoaster, and takes up most of Sharma’s weekends.

“It’s been a journey for me as well, on a personal level,” she says.

What’s on the horizon after graduation? Sharma is mulling her options: perhaps law school, a master’s in public health or even a start-up, drawing on her new insights into human psychology, gleaned at UBC. “I’ve got to pick a lane!” she jokes. Most recently, Sharma feels unconvinced that non-profit initiatives are the best way to accomplish Prahtisandhi’s goals, especially because the India government doesn’t support such interventions, she says. For certain, one thing is that she would like to initiate more conversations on topics such as pleasure.

“There’s a controversial line when it comes to how much you talk about with teens,” Sharma says. “Right now, it still feels very rigid, black and white, when where it all happens is in the gray zone.”

Read more about Prathisandhi.


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