By Yangchen Roy:
A glance was all it took for me to realize that Shanti (name changed) cannot be older than 18. She is the mother of a two-year old boy. Jharna Mashi, her mother-in-law, works as a domestic help in my house. I hopped a local train to reach the village of Laxmikantapur, approximately 85 km from Calcutta, where the family resides.
Shanti’s husband has studied only up to class eighth. I doubt whether Shanti has ever studied in a school. Her husband is around 30 and looks quite sturdy. The playfulness and naivety brimming on Shanti’s face conceals more than it reveals. How many more children her womb will be forced to rear? Moreover, her emaciated and anemic body begs the question as to how many more child births she can survive. She does not understand complex matters like the importance of safe sexual practices, her right against sexual harassment or, in a broader sense, her needs as a woman.
Shanti is representative of women who are exploited and forced into child marriages, their cognitions blighted by the society. They bear their first child before they become adults. Cooped up in remote villages, the Shantis of India are ignorant of their fundamental rights such as right to education, right to a carefree childhood and right against exploitation.
History teaches us that equal rights must be granted to both men and women for a society to prosper in a balanced manner. Sexual discrimination hinders development. There is no contesting the fact that of the two sexes of the human species, women have always been subjected to sexual discrimination and harassment. Since most societies are intensely patriarchal in nature, their voices are often stifled.
The world, and India, has come a long way since the days of the women suffragists of the 19th century France, Britain and the US. Women had to fight for universal suffrage- equal participation of both sexes in economic, political and social forums. However, not everything is accomplished with political and social equality. The opposite sex deserves respect as human beings. It is important to instill this consciousness among adolescents and adults to boot.
Sex education forms the crux of this mission. To plant a sense of mutual esteem among teens is crucial. Claiming that fifteen is too a tender age to involve an adolescent in discussions related to human sexuality, safe sexual practices, reproductive health, emotional issues and contraception is retrograde and absurd. State governments have been reprimanded for attempting to implement sex education programmes in schools. Assertions have been made that sex education is not part of ‘Indian Culture’ and that it triggers promiscuity.
Sex education is particularly important for a county like India, which has an alarmingly high rate of child marriages like many other developing economies of south Asia and countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Policy makers, politicians and service providers in India need to take note of the fact that counties that have incorporated sex education as part of high school curriculum have much lower rates of teenage pregnancies and adolescent HIV victims.
An adolescent is curious about sexual matters. Since parents and teachers consider it a taboo to discuss such issues, an adolescent turns to unreliable and often-misleading sources like friends and media. Prevention is better than cure. Rather than leaving students deficient and incorrectly informed about sexual matters, it is better to have open dialogue about health education to avoid misconceptions and fallacy.
Initiatives have to be envisaged which encourage discussions on topics such as the right age for sexual practices, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and hygiene. Contrary to the prevalent view, such measure would help reduce risk behavior.