Shanshan He: Leading the Way for Young People

It all started when I hadn’t seen one girl for a couple of months. I was told her boyfriend had broken up with her because she was pregnant. Then the rumors started. “She borrowed money, she is probably going to take an abortion.” “She should be expelled from school.” “Her parents were angry and they beat her.”

I felt sad that young people weren’t being given the chance to receive comprehensive sex education at school and learn how to protect ourselves. I was outraged that when a girl found herself in these circumstances, people and society simply criticized her behavior rather than providing help and supporting her.

When I first participated in an event hosted by UNFPA in 2014, I was astonished to learn the tremendous number of adolescent girls giving birth every year – 7.3 million in developing countries. In China, 4 out of every 100 unmarried girls aged 15 -24 become pregnant, and almost 90% of those have an abortion.

Taking into account the huge population in China, I cannot imagine how many young people are suffering due to a lack of information and biased gender attitudes.

What youth leadership means to me

I started to volunteer at the China Family Planning Association (CFPA) – an IPPF Member Association – as a youth peer educator. I travelled to different provinces and cities providing training on sexual and reproductive health and rights to young people.

Next, I worked with Dance4life as an international trainer. I delivered Journey4life – a programme designed to build young people’s social and emotional competences so they are able to make healthy choices about their lives and feel confident about their future.

Through my interaction with different generations, I gradually realized that leadership is something that happens within yourself. You feel confident about your life, can see a different world, and are empowered to make changes.

Shanshan He, IPPF Board Member

Being a young leader at IPPF

20% of IPPF’s board must be represented by young people under the age of 25. I was elected to the board of my Member Association, the East and South East Asia & Oceania Region, and the global board. I attend meetings, participate in discussions and vote on the important matters – just as any other member.

My fellow youth representatives and I struggled when we first entered this unfamiliar territory, and had a difficult time finding our position.

Were we supposed to comment and participate solely on youth-related issues? Or should we engage with all the matters and discussions? When we speak, which hat are we wearing – young people who receive services, young activists on the ground, or youth leaders shaping the rules?

We learned that we could define our role. It was important to keep reminding ourselves of our focus and shifting hats to ensure more young people are truly represented.

We didn’t elect a chair among the youth representatives. Instead, the youth meeting is chaired by all the members in rotation. We also share the reporting and presentation responsibilities. This shared leadership approach avoids power dynamics and makes sure we don’t forget why we are all here.

Having been through the journey in IPPF, I realized that there is no point waiting until we ‘grow older’ to be a leader.

Leadership has nothing to do with age or gender. We are the leaders, now and in the future: here and beyond!

Here’s Why the UK Porn Block will not Protect Children

People in the UK will soon have to prove their age to watch porn online. The new legislation, which was due to be implemented in July but has recently been delayed, will require all adult internet users to prove they are over 18 in order to watch porn.

The UK will be the first country in the world to bring in this kind of age-verification system. To confirm their age, users will have to upload official identity documents such as a passport, credit card or driving license.

The government claims the change in the law will protect children from being harmed by “unsuitable content.” According to Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries, Margot James: “adult content is currently far too easy for children to access online.” Internet Matters CEO Carolyn Bunting adds, “children seeing content they’re not emotionally ready for can be very damaging.”

I agree that there’s a need to restrict some forms of pornographic content, but here’s why I think the UK porn block is a bad idea:

1. It shames sex

Any ban induces stigmatisation. Even if the purpose is to protect children from misrepresented forms of sex, the main message conveyed is that sex is wrong. As a result, if a young person has illegally consumed porn or has natural curiosity around their sexuality, they will be much less likely to reach out for support for fear of being punished or shamed.

There are many, many issues with the mainstream porn industry – from workers’ conditions to misogynistic and violent depictions of sex. The concept of sexual content itself isn’t the problem, however. The porn ban lumps all sexual content together, stigmatising everything sex-related. If the aim is to avoid emotional damage from unethical forms of porn, such as hardcore or violent porn, we need to single out those types of content.

2. Sex education is still very poor

Porn displays a distorted image of sexual encounters. At the same time, it’s often the only source of young people’s sex education. The lack of an all-embracing sex education programme, along with taboos around sexuality, lead young people to ease their natural curiosities online. Teens learning about sex from porn is alarming, but banning it won’t improve the situation. Instead, we need to focus on providing quality comprehensive sex education (CSE) for all young people.

Education on sex and digital literacy is an urgent need. Children should learn that porn is fiction – an entertainment film genre – just as they learn that actors don’t actually die when an on-screen character is killed. There’s an imperative need for a comprehensive, sex-positive, and inclusive sex education curriculum that takes over porn as the main source of sex knowledge for youth.

3. Elsewhere, porn still exists

In today’s digital culture, everyone who’s halfway tech-savvy will know how to ditch the age verification system. Examples are potentially dangerous and illegal activities like fake IDs or the dark web. There are also simpler and legal ways to avoid the age verification, such as VPN services. These mask browsing locations, making it look like viewers are in other countries – ones without verification systems.

Ironically, the new ban on porn doesn’t restrict social media platforms such as Reddit or Twitter. This will, inevitably, result in increased traffic of porn on social media, where most young people spend vast amounts of their time. The new law won’t apply to pop-up ads either, proving just how flawed it is.

4. It’s a privacy breach 

Watching porn isn’t (or shouldn’t be) an embarrassing or shameful activity. Porn viewers should be able to enjoy online privacy as other internet users do.

Asking people to provide their real identity details will automatically create a massive database of porn users and their tastes. Despite the government’s claims of security, a data leak of these records would have tremendous and humiliating consequences.

The need to protect children and young people from misogynistic and harmful sexual imagery is obvious. But introducing an age block? I don’t think it’s the solution.

Rather than imposing a block without explaining why porn is deceitful, efforts should be put into creating a safe environment for teenagers and adults alike to have open and honest dialogues. Talking about sex and pleasure can ensure healthy and happy sexual lives, away from porn’s misteachings.

The Importance of Menstrual Health Education

Lack of education about menstruation is one of the many barriers to achieving adequate menstrual hygiene worldwide.

Earlier this year, England’s Department of Education released new guidelines for sex and health education in the school curriculum.

The guidelines include adding menstrual health education for girls and boys in primary schools. This is the first change in the sex and relationship education guidelines since 2000, after recognition by the government that the curriculum was “outdated.”

The new guidelines also include important information on female genital mutilation (FGM) – with focus on the illegality of the practice and support networks available for those affected. This information will be taught in secondary schools, where sex education is mandatory in England.

For all ages, the new guidelines include education on mental health – such as teaching students how to identify symptoms of anxiety in their peers. Students will also explore the risks associated with sexting.

A 2018 report by Plan International UK highlighted the experience of British girls with menstruation, including their existing knowledge of periods. Girls interviewed in focus groups used several negative words to describe their periods, such as “painful,” “uncomfortable” and “inconvenient.” To describe their first periods, girls also used negative expressions like “scarred,” “embarrassed,” “unprepared” and “I thought I was going to die.”

Each country in the UK – England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales – has its own guidelines for menstrual health education. This meant that not all girls and young women featured in the report had the same experience with learning about menstruation in school.

A 2017 survey found that 1 in 7 girls and young women in the UK didn’t know what was happening when they got their first period. 1 in 4 stated that they felt unprepared for the beginning of menstruation.

Even girls who reported having learned about periods in school mentioned that their education focused solely only on the biology of the menstrual cycle. Lessons left out important information about their bodies’ anatomy and the use of sanitary products.

This lack of menstrual education and support doesn’t even take into consideration the added information needed on menstruation as it relates to people who are transgender, intersex, or non-binary.

Both the Plan International UK report and the annual Menstrual Hygiene Day initiative highlight the fact that most conversations about menstruation are heavily gendered. Current education assumes that all who menstruate identify as women and have typically ‘female’ experiences of their periods.

One way to be more inclusive in conversations about periods is to include non-gendered language. For example, we can say “menstrual products” instead of “feminine hygiene products.”

Providing young people with comprehensive menstrual and sexual education will not solve all the problems related to menstruation in the world.

It won’t, for example, address issues such as lack of access to sanitary products due to financial difficulties. It is, however, a good place to begin. Education is needed so that no young person feels scared of dying when they have their first period.

?Read more menstruation posts on girlsglobe.org?

Can the Feminist Body Hair Movement be Intersectional?

For the longest time, I believed that white women had no body hair. How lucky! No waxing, no shaving = no worries.

I was proven wrong when I was 12 years old and shopping for jeans with my father. I went off to the changing room, only to find Sienna Miller plastered on the door. There they were. Thin strands of hair. Visible only because of the lighting in the photograph and the close-up shot. What a revelation!

I had never seen women in the media with body hair.

It is no wonder that South Asia is obsessed with women’s body hair. A colonial hangover and the hairless ideal promoted by the media don’t make for a good combination. This is evident when tracing and reflecting on the history of body hair removal and hearing experiences of Indian women.

In India, waxing is a sacred ritual that starts as young as 12. It is common to hear your neighbourhood aunty snicker that you are due a parlour visit to ‘clean up’. 

Living in the Netherlands has changed my relationship with my body hair.

Long winter months are greeted with tights. Waxing prices are restrictive. The Dutch dress practically thanks to the wind and rain they cycle through daily. When summer comes around, many women shave their legs. Most tend to be more relaxed about their arms, as arm hair is generally lighter and less visible, and hence, not such an ‘issue’.

However, this is not necessarily the case for Dutch minority women. And this is the exact reason why the feminist body hair movement spearheaded by celebrities like Miley Cyrus have come under fire for lack of representation.

Although I still occasionally remove my hair, the pragmatic culture I’ve found myself living in has rubbed off on me for the better.

I suppose getting older (and wiser) also has something to do with it. I don’t remove hair as often, nor do I let my hair removal calendar dictate when I can or can’t wear a skirt.

Of course, I am not advocating that we must all stop removing body hair. We navigate and negotiate our ‘choice’ in the issue. When I return to India, I slip back into old patterns – albeit consciously. To avoid uncomfortable stares, I choose to wax. This is the reality for many with poly-cystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and for minorities with coarser hair, for whom the costs of rebelling against societal norms are too high.

How do we move away from the idea that hair is ‘dirty’ and create an intersectional feminist body hair movement that all South Asians can own?

Reframe and contextualise body hair in sex education.

Sex education should go beyond mentioning pubic and armpit hair. Discuss the options of body hair removal so that young women can be informed, without encouraging it as an inevitability. Talk about why it has become common, and place it in your country’s context. Frame body hair within changing fashion trends. And parents, support your kids to develop self-confidence.

Get the boys on board.

If you are lucky enough to have received sex education, you will know that there is often very little dialogue between girls and boys during puberty. As a result, many boys and men in India have disappointing attitudes to hair on women. Boys must not only learn about their own body hair, but also that of women, so that they understand what is natural and normal.

Let hair be seen.

Even adverts for razors in India are afraid to show actual body hair! Deepika Padukone, a famous Bollywood actress, shaves an already hairless leg in this one to show the wonders of her Gilette razor. I think a serious makeover of Indian school uniforms is needed, too. Mandatory skirts don’t allow girls to show their hair on their own terms.

Let us change the way women are represented. Have images in school textbooks that depict women with body hair. Check out illustrator Aqya Khan for inspiring examples.


Let’s take control of the narrative of body hair and allow it to be seen – for all those 12 year-old girls across South Asia.