Banning condom ads like throwing baby out with bathwater

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India’s reproductive health is the unsuspecting casualty in the recent tussle on the appropriateness of condom advertisements. The advisory issued by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on Monday, December 11, directs television channels to restrict the broadcast of condom ads between 10 pm and 6 am. By banishing the promotion of condoms to the shadows of after-sunset ‘adult’ content, we run the hazard of killing a public health necessity in a country of over 1.3 billion.The I&B ministry has cited the Cable Network Rules of 1994 that bars advertisements that “create in them [children] any interest in unhealthy practices”. Children today encounter and engage with a variety of content, a large part of it through online media. Deep-set social norms that prevent open and honest discussions and sharing correct information on sexual and reproductive health at appropriate ages underlines the burning issue of adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rampant misinformation that has partly to mental health issues and toxic relationships.
The other contentious issue is “indecent, vulgar, suggestive, repulsive or offensive themes or treatment” in ads. The advertisement industry itself is no stranger to innuendo and double entendre – and it is a blatant hypocrisy to make advertisements for condoms the scapegoat in this issue. Are condoms indecent? No. Condoms are one of the earliest and safest contraceptives, that not only prevent unwanted pregnancies, but also act as a barrier to HIV AIDS, urinary tract infections, and other sexually transmitted diseases. Given that almost half of India’s 48.1 million pregnancies are unwanted, and we have a high number of abortions, an estimated 15.6 million as observed by a recent Guttmacher Study, it makes a compelling reason for people to know about condoms and to be reminded to use them.
In the basket of contraceptive choices in India, condoms are the only spacing method for men, enabling male involvement in family planning. It is also one of the few short term methods of contraception that is still not being used widely enough. Just 5.6 per cent of the male population use condoms, while the burden of contraception is borne unequally by women. What we need is more awareness and promotion, and if advertisements are a way to create the demand for safe sex and family planning, then we need to ensure that it is not stifled by restrictions. That would in effect throw the baby out with the bath water, undoing decades of effort that has gone into advocating for sexual and reproductive rights and prevention of HIV AIDS.
It is also important to note that advertisements for condoms have evolved with the social and cultural norms of the country, starting from the first ad for Nirodh in 1966, onto the recent consumer-centric ads. The I&B Ministry and the Advertising Standards Council are overlooking the real issue, which is to review the content of specific advertisements in terms of standards of decency. We must agree on a sensitive approach that does not compromise on putting out adequate information and advocating for sexual health and reproductive choice.