By the time they get to Kiran Modi, all these children have often suffered ruthless forms of physical and sexual abuse, whether on the streets or at the hands of their own families.
Modi, who runs an organization to help them, says education might have been one way to prevent such abuse.
“What we all need to do is talk to our children in a frank manner so they know the difference between a gentle, appropriate touch and a rude touch that crosses a boundary,” says Modi, managing trustee of Udayan Care, which runs outreach programmes and shelters for children in Delhi and its suburbs. “The child doesn’t always understand it on their own.”
A recent report by the ministry of women and child development found that half the children surveyed were victims of some form of sexual abuse.(See graphics) According to another study, India has the highest number of people living with HIV—five million—than any other country in the world.
Yet overpopulated India remains largely reluctant to talk about sex at least in schools. Now, several non-governmental organizations (NGO) welcome recent government overtures as recognition that educating Indian children about the way their bodies work is vital to the country’s future.
Generally, these groups, and their funds and backers, have largely targeted sex education for adults, be it distributing condoms or street plays about HIV/AIDS prevention. The Gates Foundation, for instance, has pledged more than $250 million (Rs1,050 crore) over five years for HIV prevention in India, sponsoring diverse programmes for sex workers, clients of sex workers, homosexuals and drug users.
A half-dozen NGOs interviewed by Mint said they welcome the government’s movement towards a more formalized system of sex education—although they said it’s long overdue.
“If it’s there at all it’s aimed at a very small portion of children,” Shireen Vakil Miller, head of policy for Save the Children in India, says of formal sex education programmes. “Some private schools and certain districts in certain states might be more proactive than others, but across the board, not really.”
However, Miller added that even a more formal and consistent sex education policy in schools would fail to reach many of the nation’s poorest children who don’t attend classes.
Save the Children, an international children’s advocacy organization, funds $8 million in programmes across 10 states and tries to incorporate some basic sex education in its outreach work. “The schools are often resistant to it so we’ll address it through other children’s groups and youth clubs,” she said.
Outside the classroom, of course, sex has been making a flurry of headlines. The recent spate began with the alleged gruesome sexual assaults and murders of 20 women and children in the Nithari section of Noida, just outside the Capital. Then came the series of states pre-emptively banning sex education in their schools: Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharastra.
Officials mostly objected to pictures and descriptions in the material as too graphic; in Madhya Pradesh, some schools said yoga would be more culturally appropriate. Last week brought the news of the child abuse study, along with a summit of state education ministers discussing the issue.
Meanwhile, a lack of uniformity in curricula has produced a generation of young adults with sometimes questionable knowledge—even as rates of premarital sex are on the rise, say some activists. Avishkar, a counselling clinic in Mumbai, claims that based on its interactions, about two-thirds of young men and women, between the ages of 18 and 20, in metropolitan areas have engaged in premarital sex.
“Whatever they have got in school is just bits and pieces,” if young people have gotten any form of sex education at all, says Urvashi Gandhi, a programme coordinator at Breakthrough, which runs a Delhi-based programme to train university students to act as peer educators about sexual health.
Though the students she works with hail from various parts of the country and represent a “good mix” of economic, social and religious backgrounds, they have one thing in common: Almost none of them have had any formal sex education.
Despite the controversy and bans by some states, Ashok Ganguly, the chairman of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), said at the state education ministers conference last week that the board plans to go ahead with adolescent-awareness programmes in its schools for the next academic session.
“Honestly, the time to start doing it is now,” said joint secretary for Child Welfare Loveleen Kacker, in reference to stepping up abuse prevention efforts and sex education. “There has been a kind of conspiracy of silence about the whole issue for too long.”
At the Ramjas School, a co-educational government school in Delhi’s R.K. Puram, sex education has not been taught as a separate module, rather integrated into other courses, particularly biology and science classes. But principal Meera Balachandran says that is “just not enough.” When the school reopens in July after the holidays, it will implement the new CBSE curriculum, which will include “behavioural as well as biological elements.”
“The first thing we need to do is get them to understand themselves so that they know what is going on with their own bodies,” she said, noting that for younger children, she often lectures during school assemblies about the difference between a “good touch and a bad touch.”
On Monday, the Students Islamic Organization (SIO) of India condemned the CBSE sex education programmes and vowed to launch a nationwide protest.
Advocacy of safe sex can have “an adverse impact” on individuals and society and syllabi are devised with western norms in mind, irrelevant to Indian society, M. Saleem, the SIO’s zonal secretary for Tamil Nadu told reporters in Coimbatore.
Such attitudes make some NGOs fearful of even introducing the issue, including a backlash from donors.
“It’s necessary” but too controversial to have formal sex education classes, said the manager of one outreach centre that has worked with more than 2,000 underprivileged children and young adults in greater Delhi.
She requested anonymity because she didn’t want to upset donors. “They also need to learn maths and computers so they can lift themselves up in life.”
While there is a need for more effective ways to teach children about sex, the problem, say outreach workers and educators who favour sex education, can also be that teachers are uncomfortable teaching these subjects to students and require training to do this effectively.
In addition to pushing for mandatory sex education in schools, the ministry is in the process of implementing a far-reaching Integrated Child Protection Scheme, which includes initiatives on child trafficking and labour to strengthening the ability of the police to respond to crimes against children.
But, say some child advocacy workers, tools that could deliver the message effectively, such as television and other forms of entertainment, are not being used very effectively. For instance, they point to HIVS/AIDS prevention campaigns, such as one distributed last week to 100 state NGOs across India with special computer games, cartoons, puppet shows and animation films. The NGO Plan India designed the child-friendly HIV/AIDS packages, with funding from the department for international development. Lessons that teach children how to differentiate between a “good touch” and a “bad touch” could also be incorporated into such media, advocates say.
Aparna Kalra and PTI also contributed to this story.