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Rubber penis in family planning kit sparks row

A rubber penis in family planning kits used by local health workers has led to a controversy in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.

Opposition lawmakers say the rubber models will embarrass female health workers who use the kits to spread awareness on reproductive health.

But some workers say they have used similar models earlier without problems.

The kit also includes a rubber uterus, which hasn’t sparked any reactions.

The kits have been given to Ashas – short for Accredited Social Health Activists – who are a crucial part of India’s primary and community health programmes.

They perform a range of duties, including going from door to door to educate people about reproductive health and the use of contraceptives. This usually requires a lot of sensitivity, as sex is a taboo topic in many parts of India

Dr Archana Patil, director of Maharashtra’s public health department, told BBC Marathi that around 25,000 kits that include the penis model had been distributed to health workers and rural health centres across the state.

She added that the model has received negative feedback from only one district, Buldhana.

BBC Marathi asked around seven Asha workers from Buldhana if they felt embarrassed about carrying the models of the penis and uterus.

Two of them refused to comment. Two said it would be a little embarrassing to display the models in rural areas – where people were already hesitant to talk about sexual health – but said it was a part of their jobs.

The remaining three workers said they had no problems using the model to explain concepts if needed. None of them wanted their names to be published.

Dr Patil said no one was being forced to use the models.

“If health workers feel awkward about speaking openly about these issues, how will work get done?” she asked.

Some politicians – mainly from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in the opposition in the state – disagree.

Akash Phundkar, a BJP lawmaker from Buldhana, has demanded that the government take back these kits and apologise to the health workers.

Chitra Wagh, the party’s vice-president in the state, alleged that the government was promoting “sexual indulgence”.

Representatives of the Shiv Sena party, which is part of a coalition that governs Maharashtra, haven’t commented yet.

An Asha worker from Pune – who also didn’t want her name to be published – told BBC Marathi that they had used these models earlier as well to demonstrate aspects of family planning.

“We don’t give this kit to people. We just use it to counsel people about family planning. We were told about the models during our training,” she said.

Dr Sagar Mundada, a sexologist, said using these models was important in rural areas where illiteracy rates were higher.

“It is not right to say that this will spread misconceptions. If we speak openly, people can understand issues better. If there is no discussion about sexual issues, that will actually lead to misconceptions,” he said.

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