Meet Aparna Bhola, India’s teen sex educator
“There’s nothing to giggle or be shy about; there’s no shame in it. It’s important for us to learn about these things. Be totally bindaas (carefree) and ask me questions,” says Aparna Bhola, with a wide smile.
It’s a hot Sunday afternoon, but the stifling Mumbai summer air does nothing to curb the enthusiasm of the girls surrounding her. Aparna, a spunky 16-year-old, is in the midst of giving a group of her peers a candid sex-education class, and today’s topic is pregnancy. She leads the class confidently, dispelling superstitions with funny stories and apologizing disarmingly for her chalk drawing skills.
Aparna is member of a nongovernmental organization called Kranti, meaning “revolution,” which strives to give young women rescued from prostitution access to education and new opportunities. She was teaching the class as part of a partnership with an organization called Project Crayons, which runs a shelter for girls in Mumbai’s Malad neighborhood.
The daughter of a sex worker, Aparna grew up in Kolkata. Her mother, Malti, was married when she was 9 and was beaten by her husband. When she ran away and returned to her hometown in the Sundarbans, her aunt took her to Kolkata under the pretense of sending her to school. There, Malti was sold into sex work for 10,000 rupees ($180 at current exchange rates) when she was 12 years old. When she initially refused to be a prostitute, the brothel owner stuffed chili powder in her genitals to force her into submission, says Aparna.
Growing up in red-light districts, Aparna says she was distressed by the way doctors routinely mistreated sex workers because of the stigma against their profession. Her mother, diagnosed with uterine cysts, was unable to get treatment for them because of the bias against sex workers. Aparna remembers a niece being refused treatment by a doctor who said he didn’t want to bother with such poor people.
When sex workers like Aparna’s mother would become pregnant, the “doctors would treat them so badly,” Aparna recalls. “They would yell at them, and even slap them sometimes. They would say things like ‘You go and pick up anyone’s child and come to me with your stomach swollen. When you were doing it, you enjoyed yourself and now what happened?’ ”
These encounters made Aparna want to become a gynecologist. Even when she was younger, she would share with her friends and peers whatever sexual health-related information she could find.
“I want to work with gynecology to cater to sex workers because I know the issues they faced,” says Aparna, her face set in a determined expression. “If I became a doctor, I could give whatever information the mothers need when they are pregnant. There would be someone to talk to them nicely when they are in pain.”
In the time that she has spent at Kranti, Aparna has stopped drinking, improved her English, gained confidence and branched out into a number of extracurricular activities. She just completed grade 11, and is working toward her dream of becoming a gynecologist. This year she will enter the 12th grade and is planning to take the entrance examinations for medical school.
She also represented Maharashtra state in the Youth Parliament, an advisory group to the state government, where participants recently discussed whether sex education should be introduced in Indian schools.
“I used to think that my whole world is within the four walls of my room, of the house,” says Aparna. “Now I see that there is a big, big world beyond that where many things are possible for me.”
“What I really want is that girls become powerful and aren’t scared of anyone,” says Aparna. “They should think in their minds that ‘I will go ahead and progress and no one can hold me back.”
Now THAT’S a fierce woman.