Sex. It’s everywhere—in the cinema, on TV, in magazines and all over the Internet. The sexualization of our children is a common feature of modern society. Our children are increasingly confronted with sexual imagery and reports of all sorts of sexual activity—in the news and on abysmal reality shows and soaps. What isn’t common is education about sex and reproductive health from reliable sources. In the land of the Kama Sutra, we have so many ignorant of matters sexual. However, things are changing. Sex education is beginning to be introduced into our schools—but not without problems.
Sex education in Rajasthan was introduced as part of the “Life Skills” course in 2005. It has not been a success, and, according to a recent review, much of the blame rests on the ignorance and attitudes of the teachers. Not only did they not have adequate knowledge of the subject, they gave unscientific and illogical answers to students’ questions. To counter this, the Rajasthan department of education is planning to introduce sex education as part of the Bachelor of Education course and organize in-service courses for teachers from the state’s high schools.
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Rajasthan is making the effort, but in many parts of the country, there is no attempt at sex education. Victorian attitudes and traditional prejudices combine with sexually repressed adults to leave our youth either sexually ignorant, or with a warped sense of sexuality derived from Internet pornography and an increasingly sexualized media. And yet, the case for sex education in India is greater and different from the West because here child marriage means a huge number of adolescent Indians indulge in “legal” sexual activity. Nearly 50% of all young women below 18 are married, and approximately 18% are married by the time they are 15. Twelve percent of teenage girls are mothers, a much higher percentage when compared with the West.
In other countries, sex education has been part of a coordinated approach to bring down the number of unwanted teenage pregnancies with varying degrees of claimed success, but a sex education programme has many facets and many benefits to offer.
Good school-based programmes for teenagers increase their knowledge about reproductive health and foster positive attitudes towards healthy sexual behaviour. These programmes not only provide accurate information but also empower young people to protect themselves, help them identify and resist pressures to be sexually active until they feel they are ready, and give them the knowledge and negotiating skills to avoid sex or at least assure safer sexual behaviour. In our Indian context, it gives women more control over their bodies.
Sensitive and successful programmes address sexual abuse. For many children, such programmes can be instrumental in releasing them from the burden of shame that they invariably carry. Following a session on “good and bad touch” students were able to share their experiences through an anonymous questionnaire. As educators, we were shocked and disturbed by the percentage who spoke painfully about abuse. Sensitive counselling and support for the victims was followed through.
The fly in the KY jelly are certain sections of the political establishment which, despite all the evidence to the contrary, cling to the idea that sex education promotes promiscuity. They ignore the evidence of numerous studies, including those of the World Health Organization, that have found that there is no support for the contention that sex education encourages sexual experimentation. In fact, such programmes delayed sexual activity in many cases.
Given our relative ignorance of matters sexual, the benefits of a nationwide comprehensive sex education programme are immense.
Sex education that focuses on the physical, mental and emotional development of 11-18-year-olds has numerous benefits for the child. Take the experience of a happy and vivacious girl who turned morose, withdrawn and depressed at the onset of puberty. Worried teachers could not understand it. All this changed with one lesson where she learnt about the menstrual cycle. We realized that her depression was caused by her mother’s reaction to her first period—she didn’t explain what was happening but self-consciously gave her daughter a sanitary pad and told her to put it on. Without any explanation, the girl thought she had been cursed, and each month that passed seemed to confirm her predicament. It took one session for her to realize that she was slowly growing into womanhood, and she wasn’t cursed.
The opposition to sex education is vociferous and at times bordering on the comical. Some of our political leaders have declared that India’s social and cultural ethos are such that sex education has absolutely no place in it. They conveniently ignore the sutras which go much further than any Western textbook.
The Rajasthan experience has illuminated the level of sexual ignorance, not only of the children, but also of the teachers. The fact that nearly 50% of Indian girls become sexually active at about the same time as their Western counterparts, and that pregnancy rates for our teenagers are higher, make it imperative that we train our sexually ignorant teachers and bring in a comprehensive programme. It would be nice if we could train our sexually ignorant politicians, but training the teachers is a start.
Abha Adams is an education consultant. She writes a monthly column on training and education as they relate to careers and the workplace.
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