By Susmita Abani:
By now, many of you would have seen the trending video created by East India Comedy – a satirical spoof highlighting the disconnect between sex education in Indian schools and its students, who are growing in a rapidly evolving world in which both information and misinformation are readily available. Although fictional, the popularity of this video was attributable to it being a relatable, honest and disturbingly accurate depiction of sex education in India today. While countries abroad debate the finer nuances of the various approaches to sex education, Indian leaders are still grappling with the idea itself.
Last year, the (now ex) Indian Health Minister Harsh Vardhan sparked controversy with statements published on his website stating that sex education should be banned, and that Indian values should be emphasised in curriculums instead. These regressive assumptions have no place in a country where 47% of girls marry before the age of 18, over 50% of children between 5 and 12 have confronted some form of sexual abuse and where a large fraction of those suffering from HIV or AIDS fall within the age bracket of 15 and 29.
India is a melting pot of incongruence and polarisations, its demography including all categories – poor and rich, conservative and modern, educated and uneducated, the religious and secular. It is a terrifying mission for youngsters to form an understanding of sex and sexuality in such a multi-faceted environment with little assistance outside of their family, friends, TV, magazines and the internet – which is exactly why a Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) program is so vital for the youth of India.
CSE is a modern, all-encompassing approach to sexual education. More traditional sex education programs had focused primarily on the medical aspects of puberty, intercourse and child birth – and abstinence until marriage was promoted as the desirable and most superior form of contraception. While CSE supports abstinence and delaying sexual intimacy, it acknowledges that pre-marital sex among youngsters is an inevitable reality. CSE thus aims to impart unbiased and current information on STIs, contraception and abortion, while engaging students in a culturally relevant discourse around relationships, body issues, abuse and harassment, technology, gender-specific topics and sexual orientation. Through a CSE program, students can gain the confidence to make educated choices about their own sexual health and identity, and learn to treat their sexual maturity as being a natural part of growing up.
Despite the real need for sexual education in India, the idea is clouded by the myth that conversing with adolescents about sex will lead to greater promiscuity and sexually experimental behaviour. Research undertaken abroad has disproved this many times over, demonstrating that female receivers of CSE were 50% less prone to teenage pregnancy. Further to this “40 percent (of students) delayed sexual initiation, reduced the number of sexual partners, or increased condom or contraceptive use. 30 percent reduced the frequency of sex, including a return to abstinence. 60 percent (also) reduced unprotected sex.” Similar results were reproduced in Haryana, India. While CSE has been proven to be effective at curbing irresponsible sexual acts, abstinence-only programs showed no promise of such efficacy.
From my own upbringing in Australia, I’ve received numerous doses of sex education throughout my school life, each representing a different approach. Having attended a Catholic high school, I’d been subjected to several attempts by our teachers at demonising pre-marital intercourse. In one interesting session with a conservative expert guest speaker, we were each allowed to anonymously write our private questions on pieces of paper and place them in a box, from which she selected a few to answer. One of the questions she picked read something along the lines of, “I was told to give a boy a blow-job. And I did. Does that make me a slut?” – Upon reading this question the trainer smugly retorted “Well, if you’re asking this, then you probably are”. The awkward silence in the room that immediately followed, and the frenzy of conversation that erupted subsequent to our trainer’s departure expressed nothing short of astonishment. My friends and I felt deeply sympathetic towards the unknown girl who wrote the question, for we were sure that the lady’s response had rendered her extremely guilty, incredibly embarrassed and thoroughly confused. That was not the answer a trained sex educator should have given to a crowd of 15-16 year old girls.
Stories like these illustrate the subjective nature of abstinence-only or traditional sexual education. Education that refuses to sincerely recognise that our teenage years are indeed daunting and in great need of neutral information, simply cannot be accepted. Politicians or groups that claim good sexual health can only be attained by “promoting the integrity of the sexual relationship between husband and wife” and by instilling cultural values is a subjective opinion, and is somewhere ultimately preventing our youth from becoming wholly informed about their own bodies, and as a result, about their own future.