Gender inequities in treatment-seeking for sexual and reproductive health amongst adolescents: Findings from a cross-sectional survey in India

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Article (peer-reviewed)

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Context: India's adolescent health policy aims to improve sexual and reproductive health, especially amongst the most vulnerable. There is limited evidence on how gender influences treatment-seeking patterns amongst unmarried adolescents. Methods: We analyzed data from 11,651 unmarried adolescent boys and girls aged 15–19 from a cross-sectional survey conducted in two large states of India. We conducted sex-disaggregated analyses to estimate the prevalence of symptoms of genital infections and compare treatment-seeking patterns. We identified correlates through multivariable regression and used a conceptual framework to explore structural, household, social and individual factors that influence gender inequities in adolescent sexual and reproductive health. Results: One in five unmarried adolescents reported symptoms of genital infections, such as burning or discharge, in the past three months. Factors associated with reporting symptoms varied between boys and girls, except for a common correlation with symptoms of depression. At least two-thirds of boys sought treatment, compared to approximately one in four girls (rural: 66.2% boys, 23.1% girls; urban: 69.4% boys, 30.7% girls). Boys primarily sought care from medical shops or private facilities, while girls used both private and government services. Amongst boys, having friends and being in school was associated with seeking treatment (aOR: 11.47; 95% CI: 2.75, 47.87; aOR: 1.95; 95% CI: 1.24, 3.07, respectively). Odds of seeking treatment were higher amongst girls with exposure to any mass media (aOR: 1.93; 95% CI: 1.25, 2.99) and who had discussed puberty with a parent (aOR: 1.98; 95% CI: 1.32, 2.98). Conclusion: Stark sex differentials in factors associated with symptoms and in treatment-seeking illustrate how structural gender inequities, such as access to economic resources and education, influence sexual and reproductive health amongst adolescents. Along with health system interventions, addressing gender inequities calls for strategies to strengthen parental engagement, social support and girls’ access to resources.