A firestorm has erupted throughout India recently against sexual health education for school-age children. Conservative groups have suspended programmes in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and three other states. Yet, bans on sex education are not only misguided but dangerous—particularly in the fight against AIDS.
Traditionalists argue that sex education will corrupt Indian youth. There is no doubt that in mainstream Indian society, premarital sex and open discussion of sexual activity is contentious—if not almost universally considered inappropriate. Some sexual health education throws discussion of sex within talk of hardcore drug use and alcoholism, simply teaching students to avoid it. “Our endeavour is to make children aware of evils such as drug addiction, alcoholism and other dangerous things,” one Mumbai-based school principal recently told the BBC about sex education.
I don’t intend to argue that premarital sex is right or wrong. But the bottom line is that a very significant percentage of school-age youth are having sex, with some estimates pegged at over 30% of Indian teenagers. It makes no sense to advocate a “non-engagement” policy of premarital sex for Indian youth. Whether or not you think teenage sex is right or wrong, telling students who already have sex to abstain accomplishes nothing: educators must provide them with information appropriate to the decisions they have and continue to make.
And to write off discussion of such activity as a “social evil” on the same page as drug addiction hardly makes sense, considering that the majority of Indians will, at some point in their lives, engage in sexual intercourse. Indian educators can tell students to avoid drugs and alcohol, but hardcore drug use is not nearly as rampant as sex. “Sex education does not mean you are encouraging sex, which is how it’s interpreted,” India’s minister for women and child development Renuka Chowdhury told Reuters.
Educators have a responsibility to tell students about the potential ramifications of sexual activity, including sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. But more significantly in India, health education is needed to curb the spread of AIDS.
The UN says 5.7 million Indians are infected with HIV, and even though recent estimates may place that number closer to three million, there is no doubt that AIDS in the subcontinent is increasing rapidly. With 85% of AIDS infection in India transmitted through sexual activity (as opposed to injecting drug users or mother-to-child transmission), interventions that encourage safe sex practices—such as sex education—make sense. Because 15-29- year-olds account for about half of all new HIV/AIDS infections, youth must be targeted.
Significant sexual education programmes have proven successful, time and again, in curbing HIV/AIDS transmission. If we look to other countries that have undergone massive sexual education programmes, we can see significant declines in HIV/AIDS transmission. A prominent example is Thailand, whose intense education campaign is credited with ushering in significant declines in AIDS incidence rates —nearly 150,000 new annual cases in the early 1990s dropped to below 20,000 by 2003.
But opponents of sex education must be shown that it is part of the solution—not the problem. “AIDS is spreading because of cultural decadence and sexual anarchy,” one Mumbai-based student leader opposed to sex education told Reuters recently. Public health officials universally agree that sexual education is a step in the right direction, and to ban such programmes is simply reckless.
Jonathan Sidhu is a student at Brown University, USA, and a freelance writer. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org