New Delhi: Should a 15-year-old student be permitted to look at anatomical drawings that illustrate how an adolescent’s body develops into adult form?
This simple question stands at the heart of an uneasy debate over Indian values, contemporary morality and the best way to educate modern teenagers in the facts of life.
As Indian society races through extraordinarily rapid social change, a dispute over the content of a sex education textbook throws a spotlight on the ever-shifting boundaries between cultural acceptability and sexual taboos. It shows how conservative forces in India are battling fiercely to resist the swift pace of change, as a new generation of adolescents, particularly in the cities, are brought up on an untested diet of western soap operas, cable television and increasingly globalized values.
In recent weeks, six of India’s 28 states have suspended a new “adolescence education” programme designed for 15- to 17-year-olds in all state-run schools and devised jointly by the ministry of human resource development (HRD) and the government body responsible for combating the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Outrage, mainly among rightist parties, which often promote themselves as defenders of an ill-defined notion of “Indian morality”, was prompted primarily by a flip-chart of illustrations for use by teachers as they summarized the physical changes experienced by teenagers during puberty. Information in the curriculum on contraception and sexually-transmitted diseases also provoked anger.
Moral policing: Members of the All India Democratic Students’ Organization staged a protest on 21 May in Agartala against the inclusion of sex education in the Class 10 syllabi by the state board.
One by one, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Kerala declared that the content of the course was unacceptable for children and announced a suspension of the programme.
The government of Kerala has stopped teaching the course temporarily while a review board modifies the textbooks, excising the unacceptable elements. The chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, wrote in a letter of protest to the HRD ministry that the “government has devaluated Indian culture and its values”.
The education minister in Rajasthan, Ghansyam Tiwari, justified his decision by describing the course material as “disgraceful and capable of corrupting the minds of the young”. Announcing a decision to suspend the course in Karnataka, chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy said at a news conference, “Sex education may be necessary in western countries, but not in India... It will have adverse effect on young minds, if implemented.”
This response has elicited seething frustration in the national AIDS control organization, where officials are struggling to combat an AIDS epidemic. Last year, India became the country with the highest number of HIV-positive people, with an estimated 5.7 million cases. The director of the AIDS organization, Sujatha Rao, said she regretted the way the subject had become a political flashpoint.
“There is no place for a debate here on cultural sensibilities. This is a basic question of saving lives,” she said in an interview at the group’s headquarters here. According to its research, one-third of the reported infections across India are in the 15-29 age group and 50% of all new infections are in this young category.
Rao said that conservative groups across the country were being unrealistic about swiftly changing attitudes to sex among a new generation of Indian teenagers and were clinging stubbornly to an outmoded vision of the country’s youth.
“There is much more permissiveness around today than a generation ago; young people are more aware of their sexuality,” she said. “There is much greater access to information about sex from the Internet, from the cinema, from television. This generation needs to be much more knowledgeable, so that they are aware of the risks,” she added. “I have a feeling that the conservative elements in our society are unable to cope with these dynamic changes that are taking place. There is a fear that this area was once under their control and is now spiralling out of their control.”
India has included sex education in its national curriculum since the late 1980s, but earlier course material gave little detail on contraception and sexually transmitted diseases and had no illustrations.
The AIDS group maintained that with the epidemic spreading and with teenagers starting to have casual sex, the new course had to be clearer in certain areas. A study by the group in 2006 showed that 8% of Indian teenagers had had casual sex. The timing of this debate comes as self-appointed defenders of Indian morality have caused noisy controversy on various other issues.
In every area of life, India is struggling to find a commonly acceptable line between decorous behaviour and actions deemed to outrage moral sensibilities. Despite the increasingly permissive atmosphere, the occasional kiss or display of excess flesh triggers a nationwide, media-fuelled storm.
The Union government decided to ban the broadcasting of FTV in March, in response to complaints about programmes such as Midnight Hot, which showed models in flimsy bikinis. The information and broadcasting ministry said that the programmes were “against good taste and decency, denigrate women, and are likely to adversely affect public morality”.
All of which makes the teaching of sex education an extremely delicate business.
Vandana Sharma, director of Nari Raksha Samiti, or the women’s protection league, a charity that has been campaigning for better sex education in schools, said the course was more vital than ever before. “This kind of teaching was not necessary 10 years ago. But now India is merging more and more with Western cultures, there is easy access to Western culture through cable television,” she said.
“Teenagers see characters having extra-marital affairs and women in seduction roles, and they want to experiment, too,” Sharma added.