Sex education in India is the most awkward but awaited moment in school - no student wants to miss their teacher uttering the word sex. It's more of a show than a learning moment. My eighth-grade biology teacher could sense our excitement about the topic and the moment she said the word sex, soft giggles and snickering started circulating around the classroom.
However, after that, she didn't say much. Except glossing over the reproductive parts of the human body, she quickly moved on to sexually transmitted diseases, saying that "our reactions and faces" made it clear that we already knew how sex works. Thinking of it as 22-year-old, I suspect the topic made her so immensely uncomfortable that she avoided a mandatory conversation with the adolescents that we were.
It's been 9 years since that incident and not much has changed since then. Indian parents are still coy about sex, that is until young adults get married. After that, they can't stop nudging them to get into bed and procreate an adorable grandchild. We think this is a foolproof system - parents can avoid the awkwardness of the sex talk and young adults will refrain from sex because of its absence in conversations. However, the truth is far more sinister.
A rape is reported every 15 minutes in India, according to 2018 data by the National Crime Records Bureau. 11 per cent of the world’s teenage pregnancies happen in India meaning 16 million girls aged between 15-19 become mothers each year. All of these are side-effects of a non-existent sexual education curriculum in Indian schools.
Why we need sex-ed in India
Indian culture surely imparts gyaan (knowledge) about protecting one's virginity, avoiding premarital sex, not entering the kitchen while menstruating and countless other cautionary tales disguised as wisdom. But it embarrassingly fails in educating adolescents with correct and comprehensive information on their bodies, access to contraceptives and safe sex. We’re already witnessing the fallout of the same - teenage pregnancy is rising as young girls get married off to older men and due to a lack of knowledge and gender equality, these teen wives often get little say in the number, timing and spacing of children. This also leads to high-risk pregnancies.
The horrific epidemic of rape and violence against women also stems from young boys' misinformation and lack of knowledge of consent in our society. At the cost of “protecting” our teens from sex, India has gained the reputation of being one of the most unsafe places for women.
Menstrual myths and taboos are other problems haunting the country. On one hand, women are celebrated for their first menstrual cycle and on the other, their condition is labelled as polluted or impure. Such hypocrisy has led to 71 per cent of girls having no knowledge of menstruation before their first period and experiencing shock, fear, anxiety and frustration during their period, according to a country analysis of menstrual health by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Most Indian girls and women (88 per cent) rely on homemade contraptions during menstruation such as hay, sand, old rags, and cotton. These methods increase the risk of contracting reproductive tract infections. Also, disposal mechanisms for sanitary pads, such as incinerators are often hazardous to the women who operate them.
An organisation, Avaaz Foundation, a US-based non-profit, after learning about the Delhi gang-rape, felt proper sexual education was long overdue in India. They had gathered over 1.1 million signatures on their online petition to start a public education programme bring gender equality in the country. They also mentioned ways on how to handle India's rising rape cases through a four-step public education campaign to change misogynistic attitudes in a 2013 report.
Another Mumbai-based company, UnTaboo, is working on the same goal - to equip adolescents with age-appropriate, safe, and responsible sex education. Anju Kishinchandani, the founder, believes that there's an urgent need for education on adolescent sexuality and sexual intercourse in the country.
In an interview with Your Story, she says, “Parents of children aged between 13 and 14 years felt that their kids were too young to be spoken about puberty and growing up. And in puberty workshops, we don’t even talk about the sexual act – it is only about changes at adolescence. I decided to take the bull by the horns and spoke to hundreds of parents about what stopped them from giving sex education to their kids.”
"Today, I do a talk on ‘Breaking the wall of silence’ aimed at unblocking those mind blocks and I have seen amazing results. I offer that talk free of cost to any social, corporate, school or parent group,” she adds. Through workshops and talks, UnTaboo plans to slowly erase the stigma around sexuality and sexual activity so that parents can work towards improving the reproductive health of young girls and help their teens realize their sexual orientation.
Kishinchandani suggests that educators make school sex education interesting by adding art forms into the mix. For example, UnTaboo has produced a play called 'Growing Up', which explores the themes of puberty, and the social and emotional changes from adolescence to adulthood.
It's uplifting to watch organisations taking matters into their own hands and creating awareness about sexual health among the youth. However, for a larger change, we'll require the Central and State governments support in introducing comprehensive sex education in Indian schools.
Why do Indians have a problem with sex education?
Unfortunately, Indian leaders have not been great allies of sex education programmes in schools. In 2007, when the central government had announced the launch of the Adolescence Education Programme in schools along with National AIDS Control and The National Council of Educational Research and Training, 13 states wanted to ban it. Their reason being that comprehensive sexuality education was against Indian culture.
In 2007, there was a sexual health education program for adolescents that India’s National AIDS Control Organization and its Ministry of Human Resource Development was promoting. India's Health Minister, Harsh Vardhan, in 2014 had declared he wanted to ban this sex education programme. Vardhan proposed for yoga to be compulsory in school instead of comprehensive sex education.
He said, in an interview with the NYT, “condoms promise safe sex, but the safest sex is through faithfulness to one’s partner.” His comment created a massive uproar among sex-positive educators and parents because his outlook on sex encouraged abstinence over education and sexual health. He replied to the backlash by tweeting, “Media got it wrong again. I am against “so-called” sex education not sex education per se. Crudity, Vulgarity out, values in.”
It's unclear what he meant by "so-called" sex education and his clarification offered no direction on where India was heading in terms of sex education. But it did spark support from the right-wing groups Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti. The two organisations issued threats of physical violence against teachers and schools that carried out the 2007 sex education program. In fear of more threats by religious groups, many states banned sex education.
The 2018 sex education program by PM Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had introduced a new sex education program in 2018. Teachers were to educate students on the safe use of the internet, reproductive health, prevention of HIV and gender equality under the curriculum. The programme also included lessons on menstruation and nocturnal emissions for adolescents reaching puberty as part of the module- 'growing up healthy.
Lessons on subjects such as menstruation and nocturnal emissions for children hitting puberty are a part of the module called ‘growing up healthy’. It's impressive that the curriculum also has a module on gender equality which attempts to dismantle gender stereotypes. “Gender is socially constructed and thus can be changed over time. We are all equal and deserve to be treated equally,” the module says.
It seems this move by the NDA government has created a positive impact as Harsh Vardhan, earlier opposed to basic sex education, in 2018, had advocated for the rights of LGBTQ youth in India. This was a much more progressive stance than before. But we still have milestones to accomplish in terms of sexual awareness, reduction of sex crimes and spread of sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancy, etc. Luckily, we have international models of sex-ed that we can derive inspiration from.
Sex education across the world
European countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway have the lowest rates of teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases and are among most gender-equal countries. They begin introducing aspects of sex education to children as young as 4 years old, with age-appropriate content. Parents and teachers in the Netherlands focus more on the positive aspects of sex rather than the "dangers of sex" resulting in teenagers being more open about their sex-related concerns. This constructive approach encourages teenagers to engage in informed first sexual experiences and avoid sexually transmitted diseases.
On the contrary, when students are scared and almost threatened into abstaining from sex, it produces negative results. We can observe that in the U.S - it has one of the highest teenage birth rates of all developed nations. Many believe this is a result of repressive sex education where teens are taught only about abstinence and less about healthy sexual behaviour and intimate relationships.
How can we ensure better sex education?
Radhika Mittal, founder of Super School India, who has started an outreach program on sex education (The Responsible Youth) tells Qrius that teachers need to have a uniform code of conduct when educating students on sex. She further explains, "There is no check on who conducts these sessions and in what manner. She says that the teachers need to be very careful with their language so as to not sexualise anything or to give in to any existing societal norms/taboos."
"Students should be able to respect the person who conducts the classes and most importantly, the person should be qualified, so that things are taught in an age-sensitive manner to the pupils", she adds. Instead of it being a one-time session, Radhika suggests for schools to have it as a weekly class so that there's more familiarity with the topic. As far as gender identity and equality are concerned, teachers mustn't miss out on sensitizing students to respect each other regardless of gender and sexual orientation. Furthermore, with sexual violence rising in India, educating young boys about consent, safe sex and women's bodies are crucial to women's safety and healthy relationships in the country.