Saturday, August 11, 2007

Who’s afraid of sex education?

The debate on making sex education mandatory in schools continues. Those against it see red at the mere mention of words like condom and arousal, while those in favour of it assert the instruction is essential to combat the risk of AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. Vibha Sharma looks at the stops in the way of sex education and the new module on the subject in the offing

As part of sex education, schoolgirls view exhibits in Antarang, the country’s first sex museum in Mumbai
MODEL EXPERIENCE: As part of sex education, schoolgirls view exhibits in Antarang, the country’s first sex museum in Mumbai. — Photo by Reuters

In a society where the word "sex" brings an embarrassed smile on most faces along with an urge to look away, the government’s and educators recent efforts to bring some forbidden words out of the closet in the form of a brand-new adolescent education programme has led to a debate on pros and cons of sex education in Indian schools.

Traditionalists or conservatives think teaching Indian adolescents about sex in the proposed form would be a bad idea. They argue this would not only be against Indian culture and ethos but also confuse teenagers who might think that they needn’t show restraint when it comes to sex.

At the other end of this debate are those clearly in favour of sex education. They feel there is nothing wrong in teaching children to view sex as a normal and healthy part of life. This group, which largely includes urban youngsters, their parents and social groups involved with child abuse, says discussing sex in a healthy way in classrooms will help youngsters to make informed decisions in life. This will make up for the silence maintained in many homes on the subject.

If nothing else, they say India’s burgeoning population and AIDS/HIV figures are reason enough to start talking about sex.

Somewhere in between are the moderates who feel information imparted in a culturally sensitive form can help mould impressionable minds and help them flower into complete human beings.

Why the debate

At the heart of the current controversy is the Human Resource Development Ministry’s Adolescent Education Programme prepared in collaboration with the National AIDS Control Organisation.

Its aim is to provide 100 per cent coverage for senior schools so that students have adequate and accurate knowledge about HIV/AIDS in the context of life skills. The problem here is usage of some objectionable words, photographs and sketches.

Following objections from several states, including Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharshtra and Karnataka, as well as protests from politicians belonging to both the UPA and the BJP, the programme is now under review by a task force that will present a new module on sex education. In any case, it has been decided to tone down the contents of the programme and delete objectionable words like masturbation, arousal and sexual intercourse. The controversial teachers’ training manual is also under review.

Though sex education in the form of chapters on reproduction has always been part of biology classes in schools for a long time yet it has not been as effective as envisaged. Over 90 per cent of the public schools offer courses on sexuality and HIV but sex education continues to be perceived as an uncomfortable subject in classrooms.

For conservatives, the problem with the latest programme was that the message of safe sex with condoms seemed to suggest to an impressionable mind that casual sex, if practised safely, was okay.

A taboo word

More than "sex education", there appears to be a great Indian mental block against the three-letter word ‘sex’. The word, for many, seems to suggest loose morality and promiscuous behaviour. Therefore, it should not be surprising that the HRD Ministry’s teen education plan started a debate on country’s social fabric, cultural ethos and moral ethics.

Conservatives explain that it is the "activity" involved with the word that makes it objectionable. Education is a sacred, pure word. But when ‘sex" is added as the prefix, the purpose of education gets defeated.

Interestingly, the word ‘sexy’ is used by modern-day youngsters as part of common parlance. Clothes can be sexy, a book can be sexy, even a mouth-watering samosa can be called sexy. Filmstars like Shah Rukh Khan, Bipasha Basu, John Abraham and even the 60 plus Bachchan are sexy. In fact, it is an achievement of sorts if a model or a film star gets the sexy tag. It is part of filmi songs and dialogues. In Cheeni Kum, Bachchan calls his six-year-old friend in the film "Sexy". But for middle-class moms and dads, it is certainly not sexy if their child uses the word sexy

"Sexy may be a hip word but for me it is an uncomfortable word that should not be frivolously used by youngsters to describe how "hot" or "cool" some people or things are," says Anita Malik, a schoolteacher. So when her teenage son used the word "sexy" to describe how cool his new pair of jeans was, she was quick to reprimand him not to use the word in front of his seven-year-old sister, who in turn promptly asked her mother what the word meant.

If the word sexy could be objectionable, no wonder that most households consider it a complete no-no to have discussions on sex, condoms and HIV/AIDS.

But Malik supports sex education, though in a toned down form. She says children need to know. The most important factor in this entire debate should be the level of awareness and sensitivity of the teacher. "If the teacher is able to treat the subject with understanding and maturity, it will be a positive effort. Otherwise the subject can evoke a lot of embarrassment, giggling, and sniggering," she says.

In all, most parents share the feeling that sex education should be carried out in a sensitive way so that no one is uncomfortable and offended. And maybe if the subject is taught to boys and girls separately, it will raise the comfort level of teachers as well as students.

Interestingly, while politicians, educators, social activists and parents continue with debate, the targets of the issue — children — are left wondering what the fuss is all about. Children in urban areas support the need to know, saying that someone should tell them the right thing before they are tempted to find out through the wrong way.

Class XII student Pallavi Ghosh relates her experience when as a nine-year-old her best friend whispered in her ear that if a boy kisses a girl while she is menstruating, she could get pregnant. "It was only after I talked to my mother, who explained why a girl gets periods and how she gets pregnant, that I was able to get rid of my fears," says Pallavi.

Political response

Incidentally, sex education has managed to evoke response from politicians in power as well those in the Opposition.

Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss, naturally, in its favour, says sex education will not increase promiscuity but help youngsters make the right choices.

He says Indian parents should be more worried about what their children are learning from films and television. "Children need education to avoid making wrong choices and be completely aware of the risks involved in unsafe sex, like teenage pregnancies and HIV/AIDS," he adds.

His cabinet colleague Women and Child Development Minister Renuka Chowdhury too is an avid advocate of sex education. This vociferous supporter of women and children’s rights, who recently also cautioned women to be careful about their husbands sexual habits and be comfortable buying condoms, says "Knowledge is power and it is better to arm your child than be sorry later."

"Sex is the most basic need. It is something every human being is born with. But the way we try to hide it indicates to an impressionable mind that sex is just the final act and nothing else. Sex is the most natural act in the world and it is only natural that children should be curious about it. Which is why it is better to talk about it and prepare your children well in advance, especially when we hear stories about a 10-year-old boy being sexually abused in a school or a 15-year-old girl staging her kidnapping to undergo an abortion. Information about safe sex is something every child should have access to in all states. If it is not acceptable in the present form, it can be toned down to suit area and culture-specific needs, but sex education should be mandatory in all states," she says.

On the other end of this debate on the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of sex education are political leaders like Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, who considers sex education antithetical to Indian sensibilities and culture and fears it would end up corrupting the youth.

Yadav is with the group that feels that teaching children about sexuality can break the notions of modesty and tear the moral fabric of the country. Brushing aside the fact that India is home to the world-famous Kamasutra and Khajuraho sculptures, the resistors assert those were different times and cannot be compared to present-day India.

In this matter, Yadav has allies in the rival BJP and the RSS who too think sex education would end up creating "morally sick" children. Senior BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi, a former HRD Minister, has been quoted saying that sex education will disturb the social environment of the country. Some politicians have gone to the extent of alleging that curriculum on sex education has been introduced at the behest of foreign powers to increase the sale of condoms.

The way out

The solution to this problem probably lies in adopting the "middle path". Maybe the syllabus needs to focus on education in line with India’s social fabric while emphasising health concerns. Maybe it is also time for parents to not only stop being uncomfortable with the subject but also pitch in. As they say, who can be better teachers than parents?

At the school level there are various successful models being followed the world over to choose from and reform our own system where confusion prevails. As important as the curriculum is the awareness level of teachers. More than the words, what is more important is the intention with which one uses them.

Richa Awasthy, a psychologist and faculty member of a Delhi-based management institute, says we should ideally proceed in the way students understand the main aims of what is being taught.

"Children need to be told but at an appropriate age. There is no need cross limits and start talking about intercourse or condoms to very young children. But they do need to know about good touch, bad touch and basic information regarding their genitals. They have to be told that nobody should be allowed to touch their private parts. Slightly older children can be told about their body and its reactions to sex hormones. Likewise, there can be study material for different age groups and classes," she says.

This makes sense as figures suggest that in India more than 53 per cent of the children are sexually abused and 21.9 per cent have to face severe forms of sexual abuse. Considering that India is home to 19 per cent of world’s children, it is a huge number of people we ought to be worrying about.

"Children between the age-group of five and 12 years suffer higher percentages of sexual abuse and that too by known persons. The reason why children continue to suffer is either because they are too scared to talk about their physical and mental torture to parents or because nobody ever told them what bad touch was and they are unable to understand the cause of their misery. Ideally, the beginning has to be from home and parents should also get over this great mental block," she adds

The common perception is that child abuse usually takes place in poor or low strata of society, but the fact is that the incidence of sexual abuse is equally high in the so-called educated and well-to-do-families.

Older children can gather a lot sex-related information on the Net, in good as well as perverted and titillating forms. Which is reason enough for them to understand the subject in totality and in a scientific manner, along with the pitfalls involved.

"We cannot wish away the fact that the number of adolescents having sex at the school level is increasing. It’s time they also understood that they should be completely responsible for their actions," Awasthy adds.

There are several ways to deal with classroom inhibitions. One could be to have male teachers for male students and female teachers for female students. Second, instead of taking the aid of text and pictures, education could be imparted by involving students in a discussion. Third, sex education could be given a "less embarrassing" name like "life skill studies" or "jeevan kaushal".

Admittedly the word does bring a visual image about the act but awareness has to be created and threats from AIDS/HIV should be explained to children before it is too late. We have already crossed the 1.2 billion mark and if the number of HIV/AIDS-affected people is any indication, it’s time we started talking about sex.

New module

The programme prepared by the HRD Ministry on sex education is currently under review. The new programme which will be out shortly is aimed at Classes IX and XI — mainly students 14 years and above. The module intends to deal with the physiological as well as emotional aspects. It will also try to clear doubts, fears and apprehensions that arise in a teenager’s mind.

Role of teachers

"The major resistance to the sex education programme is from the teaching community that has problems even while teaching regular biology lessons which have references to sex. And here we are not referring to high-end schools but government and aided schools. There are studies to prove that a majority of the teachers just skip the "uncomfortable" paragraphs and tell students to read them on their own. Past experience shows that there have been no attempts to tackle sex education as a subject, let alone deal with it as an issue," says an official from the HRD Ministry.

"Teachers should be ready to take it on because they are an important influence on children and their willingness to engage themselves is as important as the contents of the study material. It may not be easy for one to become involved with a particular issue but every profession has its discomfort zone that needs to be tackled," the official adds.