By Uzair Belgami:
In the village of Johi in the Sindh province of Pakistan, teachers have started Sex Education classes for their girl students (yes, you read that right!). There are eight schools in the locality run by the Village Shadabad Organisation. Their sex education lessons – starting at age eight — “cover changes in their bodies, what their rights are and how to protect themselves.” What is remarkable about the initiative (apart from the fact that the local populace or the teachers haven’t been harassed by religious fundamentalists, yet) is that reportedly these classes are being given support by most of the local families of the area (1).
“Sex” is a massive taboo in our ‘conservative’ South Asian societies. I don’t agree with the all-too-easy to arrive at paradigm, that to be ‘conservative’ is a ‘bad’ thing or a sign of some form of ‘oppression’, while more ‘liberal’ societies or peoples are necessarily more ‘progressive’. Of course the definitions of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are all too closely associated with and assigned by ‘power’, ‘time’ and the ‘dominant discourse’, which in themselves may be oppressive or prejudiced. Hence, to be labelled or perceived as ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ is not something that can be taken at face-value and a given. For example, the definition and image of a ‘conservative’ person in Europe, in the Indian Sub-continent and in China may be very different; and hence judging or labelling a particular society or people, is a very problematic and inaccurate process.
The above comments were an attempt to unshackle the discussion of ‘Sex Education’ from a discussion purely based on ‘values’, and the all-too-common trend of blatantly associating one with a different position on the matter as either a ‘backward’/’narrow-minded’ or a ‘progressive’/’broad-minded’ person(s).
However, I would rather like to approach the issue from a perspective of ‘necessity’ based on our present time and space. The world today is facing an unprecedented battle with HIV-AIDS. (2) In 2011, there were 34 million people suffering from AIDS in the world, 50% of whom were women. This includes 4 million people in South Asia – 0.3 % of the population. North America, which many people accuse of being consumed with sexual anarchy, promiscuity and ‘shamelessness in general’ (strengthened by the fact that most schools have sex education there, of course!) had 1.4 million people, which is 0.6%. Europe has 0.2% of the population suffering from AIDS. It is plainly visible that we the residents of South Asia in specific have a huge problem and need to engage with this epidemic as best as possible. It is also quite plain to see that blatantly associating ‘sex education’ with rise of sexual promiscuity and AIDS is a prejudiced and inaccurate claim. AIDS is only one sexually transmitted disease, there are more too! I have also, for want of space, not even begun to mention the health-related problems and diseases women and girls are especially prone to due to lack of hygiene and education with regards to menstruation. Whether it is a wise and necessary decision to educate students who have achieved puberty and sexual competence on how to prevent and protect themselves, is a question which deserves due attention.
There is also a growing wave, or rather a tsunami, of pornography among the world today — propelled in fact, by growing access to technology. Now, whether this too is an epidemic or a welcome sign of freedom, is a debate for another place — however the fact is, pornography and its associated material have changed and are changing the way we imagine and perceive sexuality and the opposite sex. (3) Pornographic material is also increasingly accessible to children, with the prevalence of technology and growing ease of access. I am of the strong opinion that many/most forms of pornography distort the imagination we have of the opposite sex and of our own sexuality. (3) Now whether we want adults, and especially impressionable children, to let their understandings and learnings of sexuality and sex to be imbibed from such mediums and platforms is a serious question. Whether ‘sex education’ could help to educate and orient minds in a healthier and accurate way, to matters and subjects which they in most probability would be exposed to through other less healthy channels, is a very valid matter for consideration.
In response to the classes in the Pakistani village, the reaction of Mirza Kashif Ali, the Head of All-Pakistan Private Schools Federation (and also the common response of many others) – wherein he asks why children are being taught about something that they aren’t “supposed to do” (1) seems very shallow to me. By his logic, we should delete wars from school history textbooks, nuclear fission studies from school physics textbooks and the study of reproduction from biology textbooks!
Finally, having been a recipient of ‘sex education’ myself, I can state that although most of the classes were met with sniggers and snide comments by the students in general, they did not reveal anything about ‘sex’ which students in a middle class urban school did not know anyway — rather were quite informative and helpful about matters such as AIDS and puberty. Of course, how such classes must be framed sensitively and appropriated for age and specific cultures, is a very important aspect in my opinion. In countries like India and Pakistan, where talking about ‘sex’ is still considered by many as heresy and open discussions on such topics within families non-existent — educating students on the subjects in an appropriate and sensitive manner, plays a large role in promoting health; physically, emotionally and psychologically. In any case, such classes need to be removed from the lens of being seen as ‘Western’, ‘immoral’ or ‘liberal’. Initiatives like the one in the Pakistani village, need to be considered seriously and not just condemned (or supported) blindly. After all, even though many may consider themselves to be ‘moral’ by claiming to be anti-Western-values or anti-liberal or anti-sex-education (though the terms are not at all synonymous!) – we are the largest population in the world, sex must have been involved somewhere along the way, it’s time we talked about it!