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Why is a condom advert with Sunny Leone angering Indians?

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A condom company has been forced to pull down an advertisement promoting their popular Manforce brand ahead of the major Hindu festival of Navratri in the western state of Gujarat after protests by some Indians. The BBC’s Geeta Pandey in Delhi explains the controversy.

Just days before the nine-day festival was to begin on Thursday, huge billboards went up in several cities in the state in which the Canadian actress of Indian origin Sunny Leone is seen advising people to “Play this Navratri, but with love [Aa Navratriye ramo, paraantu prem thi]”.

A former porn star who has made a successful transition to the role of leading lady in hit Bollywood movies, Ms Leone has a massive fan following in India and is the brand ambassador for Manforce, the country’s biggest condom company.

The advert outraged some conservative Indians who accused the contraceptive firm of “taking marketing to an all-time low”.

Many took to social media sites to criticise the “offending advert” and the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) even lodged a complaint with the government, calling for an immediate ban on it.

“This is an irresponsible and immature attempt to boost sales by putting all our cultural values at stake,” the organisation said in a petition to Consumer Affairs Minister Ram Vilas Paswan.

Speaking to the BBC on Wednesday, CAIT general secretary Praveen Khandelwal said: “Navratri is a pious festival which symbolises the strength of women and linking condoms with the festival is highly objectionable.”

 

Mr Khandelwal, who’s based in Delhi, spotted the billboards during his visit to the city of Surat earlier this week.

“The advert doesn’t mention the word condom, but it uses double entendre to encourage youths to use Manforce condoms in the name of Navratri festival. It’s unethical,” he said.

Following complaints, police in Surat and Vadodara city (formerly Baroda) have taken down dozens of billboards, but Mr Khandelwal is demanding action against the condom manufacturer and the actress “to set an example for future offenders”.

And on Wednesday night, the company tweeted saying they had withdrawn the advert:

 

 

Some, however, say a condom advert during the Navratri festival is perhaps not such a bad idea.

Many years ago, a young woman who had just moved from the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad to Delhi, told me about the “fun” they had during Navratri – the festival of nine nights.

It’s a time when even the most conservative parents adopt a somewhat relaxed attitude and teenagers and young unmarried men and women are allowed to stay out until late in the night, participating in the traditional garba dances held at hotels, banquet halls, parks and private farmhouses.

Since the late 1990s, there have been reports that during the festival, youngsters often throw caution to the wind, indulge in unprotected sex, and two months later, there’s a spike in the rate of pregnancy and many land up at clinics seeking abortions.

Although many long-time residents of Gujarat insist that these reports are hugely exaggerated and maybe even a figment of overactive imaginations, the fact remains that over the years, doctors and health workers have flagged up the issue and state authorities have expressed their concerns.

Indian dancers participate on the first day of Navratri at the Sports Club of Gujarat in Ahmedabad late on September 28, 2011
During the Navratri festival, traditional garba dances are held at hotels, banquet halls, parks and private farmhouses

Image copyright: GETTY IMAGES

There have been attempts to encourage young people to practice safe sex and reports say that revellers, in many cases girls or young women, are shedding their inhibitions to buy condoms.

Jaswant Patel, chairman of the Federation of Gujarat State Chemists and Druggists Associations, says over the past 10 years, he’s seen the sale of condoms go up by at least 30% during the festival period.

“Condoms are sold not just at chemists and general stores, they are stocked at even corner shops that sell paan (betel leaf) and most of the buyers there are teenagers and college students,” Mr Patel told the BBC.

But despite the increase in condom sales, Dr Ruby Mehta, a gynaecologist who’s run a clinic in Ahmedabad for the past 20 years, says a spike in teenage pregnancies after the festival has continued.

“Condoms are extensively available, and couples in their 20s are more responsible, but there’s not much awareness among teenagers and they get carried away. So every year, the number of people who come to our clinic seeking terminations after Navratri is double compared to other times of the year,” she adds.

Dr Mehta laughs when I ask her if the Manforce advert is a good idea and if Ms Leone can encourage youngsters in Gujarat to practice safe sex?

“Sex education is one thing, an advert is another. What we need is better sex education in schools. Teenage girls need to be made more aware and that alone will help this issue,” she says.

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