In India, there remains a perception that sex education may corrupt or spoil the youth in the country. It is considered as ‘western’ and not a part of ‘Indian culture’. The pervasiveness of such ideas has justified restricting access to information regarding sexual and reproductive health for adolescents. This, in turn, has made young people more vulnerable to gender-based violence, STI/Ds including HIV, menstrual hygiene related infections and unintended pregnancies. Such attitudes also deny them the information and skills that they are entitled to as adolescents, limiting their sexual agency.
I remember when I first came across the word ‘sex’ in a newspaper and out of childlike curiosity asked my mother what this word meant. She deftly replied, “You shouldn’t be reading all this”, prying the paper away from me and evading any further questions regarding this topic.
Growing up, sex was never something that was addressed openly either at homes or in school spaces. It was only in hushed voices that curious adolescents discussed the little information (mostly misinformation) that they could get their hands on. Even in school, that one chapter in Biology on Reproduction was quickly skimmed over by an awkward teacher who could not get themselves to say the words “vagina” or “penis”. This taboo surrounding sex in India has made sex education an inherently difficult praxis to navigate. Over the last few years, we at None In Three have been working on a research project examining the link between gender bias and violence against women, and our participants’ stories often showed the prevalence of taboos in talking about sex:
“[…] Our teachers told us that we can go to temples, I asked my mother, and she said no, I cannot go to temple during periods. There is a lot of confusion.
What do you do?
Nayna:: I go to the temple; I think we can go to the temple, that it is not wrong. God has given us this, and why should we hide from God? I go.
M: Mom does not oppose?
Nayna: She says, God will curse me.
-Nayna, 18, 12th standard
Our research shows that Nayna is not alone in her confusion. Parents seldom discuss sex openly and instead resort to prescribing traditional customs and preaching abstinence. In 2001, in a study on urban women in Mumbai, Leena Abraham wrote, “…lack of knowledge becomes convenient while imposing other means of control over their sexuality such as instilling a fear of pregnancy in them.” This situation has not changed in the last 19 years as sexual health awareness amongst young women remains woefully limited.
It is crucial to ask ourselves, why is there a silence surrounding sex and sexuality? By not openly addressing these issues, this silence is contributing to a culture of sexism, homophobia, rape, and sexual violence. In the absence of reliable sources of sex education, adolescents receive information only from their peer group networks, magazines, or through the internet and porn. This information may be regressive, based on age-old myths, heteronormative narratives or be gender biased. This silence leads to associating shame, fear, or guilt with sex, developing a negative body image, lowering self-esteem and may lead to problematic ideas regarding sex, gender equality and violence.
According to the National Family Health Survey IV (2014-15), it is estimated that nearly 40% of women marry before the legal age of 18, while 26% of men marry before the age of 21. Further, by the age of 18, 39% of women have had sexual intercourse, the number rising to 59% by the age of 20. The absence of crucial knowledge about their own bodies makes them more vulnerable to sexual violations. It is high time that their needs are addressed. Adolescents require a safe space to be able to discuss all their queries in a manner that is gender sensitive and responsible, building empathy and acceptance for their fellow peers. A comprehensive sexuality education, which goes beyond sex to discuss concepts of consent, safety, feeling comfortable in your own body, as well as pleasure, is crucial. Given this context, it is important to examine the developments regarding sex education in India.
In 1952, India became the first country in the world to have a National Family Planning Programme (NFPP). Across the nation, there were large scale awareness campaigns popularising slogans like ‘Ham Do Hamare Do’ (We two and our two) as a large population increasingly came to be seen as economically unfeasible. It was this public discourse on population control rather than reproductive health and rights that historically shaped our current debates on sex education.
By the 1970s, to deal with this problem of overpopulation, the Indian government introduced a population education programme. This was the ideological grounding of the NFPP. It advocated small families and directly linked India’s underdevelopment to overpopulation. By the 1990s, all major educational institutions had these ideas deeply embedded within their textbooks and curricula. The ideas propagated by the NFPP were inherently hegemonic and gendered. It was particularly aimed at poor and marginalised women, who were coerced to get sterilisation by their husbands in exchange for incentives by the government. Most of the time, the women were not given complete information about the procedure or warnings about side effects. There was a complete lack of informed consent in the practice. The situation persists today as adolescent sexual and reproductive health workers (ASHAs or accredited social health activists) continue to receive targets for sterilisation despite the government announcing a “target free” approach in 1996. In 2014, the Chhattisgarh government had planned 1,50,000 female sterilisations as compared to the 8,000 vasectomies for men.
In 1994, there was a significant development in the conversation with the International Conference on Population and Development, the emphasis within education shifted away from population control and moved towards Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health or ASRH. As a part of its agenda, governments were now required to give compulsory sex education to the youth in their respective countries. In 2006, in a collaborative effort between The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), National AIDS Control Organization (NACO), and UNICEF, the government launched the Adolescent Education Programme (AEP) that was to be a part of the curriculum in schools nationwide. This programme included information about basic physiological changes that take place in the body during adolescent years, information about STIs, contraception, and conception.
However, the purpose of this program was primarily to control HIV/AIDS, a third of whose carriers, it was claimed, were the youth in schools whose sexual attitudes needed urgent rectification. There was also a stark similarity between the new AEP and the earlier population control programmes. While earlier it was the oppressed who were the subject of sexual reform and represented a problem for national development, the focus shifted on to the adolescents, whose supposed unbridled sexuality needed to be disciplined and controlled for better national health.
By 2007, the AEP was banned in 12 states including Maharashtra, Karnataka, Goa, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, the cited reason being that it was too explicit and promoted wrong values. In 2014 with a new right-wing government in power, India’s then Health Minister, Harsh Vardhan declared that he wanted to ban sex education and talked about its replacement with yoga classes and teaching “Indian culture” and values, supporting abstinence instead of education on sexual and reproductive choices. Now, while some parts of the AEP are selectively taught in schools, just the basic information regarding sex and menstruation is imparted. Sex is talked about clinically and there is still no space for students to freely communicate with the teacher. However, even this happens rarely as most schools, both private and public, continue without any formal sex education.
A report by Nirantar Trust states that “the right to sexuality education should be considered an inherent part of the rights to life, health, expression, education and information that have been recognized as fundamental rights under the Constitution of India.”
While it is important to have sex education at an institutional level in schools, we must also not forget that a sizeable number of adolescents in India do not attend formal schooling. Therefore, we must take these conversations beyond the classroom and through awareness, create an environment that encourages these discussions openly and freely, outside of the classroom.
Providing adolescents with a holistic sexuality education, which is rooted in social justice so it includes issues like consent, safety and pleasure will not only help in structurally combating sexual violence, but also help question patriarchal norms and challenge traditions and myths such as ‘girls should not go to the temple during their periods’. This will also empower adolescents with the skills and knowledge to make healthy and positive life decisions regarding their well-being. Moreover, it is their right as adolescents to be able to do so.
Gauri Pawsey is a junior research assistant at None in Three Research Centre India, Mumbai, which is is a transnational research project that commenced in October 2017 at University of Huddersfield, UK.
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