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Health minister Harsh Vardhan had written a blog in which he had advocated banning “so-called sex education”. He said, “So-called ‘sex education’ to be banned. Yoga to be made compulsory.” Photo: HT
Health minister Harsh Vardhan had written a blog in which he had advocated banning “so-called sex education”. He said, “So-called ‘sex education’ to be banned. Yoga to be made compulsory.” Photo: HT

The sex education conundrum

While school counsellors say parental resistance is a problem, experts believe denying children the right to sex education amounts to denying them their rights

New Delhi: Ravish, a class 10 student at a private school in Delhi, had a lot of questions about his relationship with his girlfriend and, like millions of teenage students, didn’t quite know whom to ask. It was awkward to raise the questions in class, so he jotted them down on a piece of paper and handed them over to the teacher in charge of his school’s adolescent education programme (AEP).

The questions ranged from changing bodies to handling the relationship. The teacher responded by calling Ravish and counselling him in private. “I was relieved," said Ravish, who asked that his last name not be used. “My questions were not vulgar, but I needed information and it’s not possible to talk about everything at home. Now I am confident that I can handle the relationship."

Started in 2005 by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) after consultations with the health ministry and the National Aids Control Organization (Naco), AEP is aimed at students like Ravish who have a lot of questions but don’t know where to get reliable answers.

It’s in the news following reports that health minister Harsh Vardhan, an ENT specialist, had written a blog in which he had advocated banning “so-called sex education". The blog was written in 2013, before Vardhan became health minister. Vardhan said, “So-called ‘sex education’ to be banned. Yoga to be made compulsory."

The furore over the blog came days after the health minister controversially told The New York Times: “The thrust of the AIDS campaign should not only be on the use of condoms." The newspaper reported the minister was in favour of “promoting the integrity of the sexual relationship between husband and wife" in consonance with “our culture".

Vardhan said he had been quoted out of context. And in response to the sex education controversy, he clarified in a Facebook post that he was not against sex education per se, but only against “vulgarity".

Ever since AEP was introduced by the United Progressive Alliance government, states have been free to adopt or reject it, said a health ministry official, asking not to be named. In 2007, Maharashtra legislators voted to ban sex education textbooks for senior students. At around the same time, Naco’s manual for sexuality education intended for school teachers was also banned by not only Maharashtra, but also Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Kerala, Chhattisgarh and Goa, forcing Naco to reissue the books with such terms as “sexual intercourse" excised.

As things stand, some schools start AEP from Class 6 onwards. The formal programme kicks in only at Class 9 and extends up to Class 12, especially in schools affiliated to CBSE. It is taught over 16-hour courses every year.

The programme covers not just sexuality, but a range of topics from drug abuse, HIV/AIDS, risk behaviour, personal hygiene, human reproductive organs, life skills and peer pressure, said M.R. Shipley, associate principal of Apeejay School, Nerul, Mumbai.

“Those who think it’s about only sex need to get better informed," said Shipley, who is also a CBSE master trainer on this subject. “Adolescence is a state of storm, stress and strain, and you cannot bypass this growing-up age. This education is not about digressing to sex or vulgarity, but about age-appropriate education," said Shipley.

Shipley said she introduced the question box formula where students such as Ravish can write their questions instead of putting them face-to-face to a teacher. The course has been designed so that it is age-appropriate and with the understanding that different age groups have different questions.

Vardhan’s stress on “our culture" has sympathizers, especially among parents. Aditi Sharma, a mother of two, feels that sex education imparted very early tends to give children access to “unnecessary" information. “My daughter has just gone to Class 5. At this age, I don’t want her to know about sexual preferences, sexually transmitted diseases, etc.," she said.

Teachers and school counsellors agree that parental resistance is a problem. Sex is not a topic discussed in most Indian households.

Veena Oberoi, an educational and vocational guidance counsellor, however, said children need guidance early on. She says that due to an information explosion, particularly on the Internet, it is imperative that children get the right information.

Examples of sex are everywhere for curious children—in movies, on TV, books, and especially the Internet, said Salonie Muralidhara, who used to conduct workshops in schools in Mumbai. Children do not always glean correct information. Yet, they do need someone to talk to. They need to understand the difference between right and wrong, she said.

India accounts for 40% of all child marriages in the world, finds a 17 June report by Dasra, a philanthropic organization working to create social change in India. The report finds that 61% of women in India in the 25-49 age group were married off before the age of 18. Overall, 47% Indian girls are married before they turn 18, and 22% of these girls give birth before turning 18, said the report titled Marry Me Later. Delaying the age of marriage has proven health and other benefits for women.

Denying children the right to sex education amounts to denying them their rights, said psychologist Geetanjali Kumar.

Kumar talks about how a 22-year-old college student recently came to her for counselling after he found out that he was HIV positive.

“We give a lot of importance to the word abstinence. But if abstinence is not what a young person can practice, what next?" she said.

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