No Sex – Ed. Please, we are Indian.
Should a 15-year-old Indian student be permitted to look at anatomical drawings that illustrate how an adolescent's body develops into an 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, is brought up in world where the internet has demolished geographical and political barriers. The tech-savvy adolescent of today has access to a smorgasbord of ideas and cultures and a teenager in Bangalore is not much different than one in Los Angeles.
In the course of this article, I aim to present a compelling case advocating the urgent need for imparting comprehensive sex education to Indian youth. I believe it is time for the decision makers of the country to recognize the gravity of the situation and abandon the ostrich approach towards the sexual behavior of youth of India.
Anita, a teacher at a private girls' school in Mumbai, enrolled on a sex education course because she felt unable to answer her pupils' constant questions about sex. Her school, one of the city's elite private schools, invites an expert to lecture pupils on “those sorts of matters” two or three times a year. That is more than most children in the state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, are getting. Sex education has never been Indian schools' strong suit, but earlier this year, Maharashtra and eight other states rejected a new sex-education program introduced by the central government. They included some of India's most populous, such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, where one teachers' association threatened to make a bonfire of the new textbooks. Ironically, Maharashtra is one of the states in India with a high HIV prevalence. The HIV prevalence at antenatal clinics in Maharashtra has exceeded 1% in all recent years, and surveys of female sex workers have found rates of infection above 20%. Very high rates are also found among injecting drug users and men who have sex with men. The 2005-2006 survey found an infection rate of 0.62% in the general population of Maharashtra1. The attempt to make sex education universal in a country where sex is rarely discussed openly was always going to be tough. The course's euphemistic title—“Adolescent Education Program” (AEP)—did not fool teachers, many of whom were horrified by a flipchart with illustrations of naked bodies and detailed drawings of genitalia.
Some also expressed anger over the inclusion of information on contraception and sexually transmitted diseases—the main point of the initiative. The involvement of the United Nations' Children's Fund, which developed the program with the government, was another hurdle. It gave right-wing religious groups, always quick to make political capital from issues touching on “Indian values”, the chance to dismiss it as a Western import. The irony is, in India, 44% of reported AIDS cases occur among 15-29 year-olds1. This highlights another problem: that many Indians have serious misconceptions about what sex education involves. As it happens, if they are given without publicity, sex-education classes can work in India. Since 1995, the Catholic Church, which runs more than 100 schools in Mumbai, has taught a course that focuses on AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases with no fuss at all. But following the ruckus over the AEP, several states are tinkering with the course material. AIDS groups worry that this will involve stripping out the sex and focusing on “life...
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