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
MODEL EXPERIENCE: As part of sex education, schoolgirls view exhibits in Antarang, the country’s first sex museum in Mumbai.
— Photo by Reuters
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.
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.
else, they say India’s burgeoning population and AIDS/HIV
figures are reason enough to start talking about sex.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
A taboo word
"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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
sex education has managed to evoke response from politicians in
power as well those in the Opposition.
Anbumani Ramadoss, naturally, in its favour, says sex education
will not increase promiscuity but help youngsters make the right
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.
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."
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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