We Indians love to make noise; yelling at the fruit vendor, honking on the streets, singing loudly at weddings. It’s what we’re good at. Making ourselves heard whether anyone is willing to listen or not.
But when it comes to initiating constructive conversations about sex, suddenly there’s a hush. This misconstrued notion of Indian values insisting upon a conservative approach to the subject is impacting a generation of children and teenagers growing up with the perils of misinformation, peer pressure and unrealistic expectations of sex and sexuality depicted in the media.
According to a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, there is a lack of comprehensive sexuality education in India. The report also emphasises that well-informed teenagers become sexually active much later.
As a mother of a 3-year-old girl, my nervousness has already begun. She is away from me for many hours in a day and it is important that I begin teaching her about her body, how to protect herself and know when something isn’t right. The problem is, like most parents, I’m stuck on where and how to start.
So how do we do this? How do we shift the paradigm from viewing sex as an awkward subject to building a two-way communication that facilitates empowering children through openness?
I spoke with Reema Ahmad, sexuality educator and co-founder of Candidly, a platform that focuses on generating awareness on child abuse, sexuality and other gender-related issues for children and adults. Their motto is – “Silence fuels misconceptions and stereotypes. The only way forward, is candidly.”
Sangeetha Bhaskaran (SB): What motivated you to start Candidly?
Reema Ahmad (RA): I’ve been conducting abuse awareness workshops for three years now. I started doing this because I am an abuse survivor myself and that experience and my responses to it shaped my life in ways that can’t really be called positive. This made me want to do something positive in this space. When I became a mother, I wanted to be better prepared and decided to teach myself. That journey of self-education and learning opened my eyes to the layered nuances of sexuality education and I was hooked. Candidly is a recent addition to this field of work with a friend to explore more areas like gender, sexuality and the way they’re reflected in culture and media.
SB: Can you tell us a bit about the age groups you deal with and your observations based on their responses?
RA: I have worked with two age groups, dividing them into groups of ages 4 to 6 and 7 to 11 to deal with age specific issues and also to make sure that they were exposed to material that was age appropriate.
Younger children are often a little confused about recognising potential danger and they have to be taught very specific body safety rules limited to naming body parts and learning to say ‘no’. Their responses vary from amusement to discomfort and we always make it a point to normalise the topic by linking it to everyday events.
Older children have often responded with more complex questions of how to identify danger when it seems friendly and innocuous, how to identify and deal with guilt and shame and how to talk to parents without fear.
In both age groups, the common factor in children’s responses is almost always a natural tendency to ask questions and be curious, which I think must never be thwarted with judgement or ridicule. That way, it is easier to maintain open communication with children.
SB: What are the challenges you face in India? Is the taboo eroding or is there still something people tread on eggshells about?
RA: The biggest challenge regarding this subject is a cultural tendency to view it with some amount of horror and suspicion – as something which should be avoided and shut down. I think there is some change regarding taboos in families and communities, with some access to education and awareness. But as far as the general population in rural and semi-urban areas goes, there is tremendous scope for improvement and awareness.
SB: What is the current system in the curriculum for sex education?
RA: As such, there is no set school curriculum for sexuality education and the schools that do adopt body safety measures do so of their own volition. Some states have begun to implement consent and body safety awareness for both boys and girls in government schools at the senior secondary level. In my opinion, guided sexuality education free of moralistic right-wing standards should be made compulsory in all schools.
SB: What pointers can you give anyone who is keen on empowering children and young adults on this subject?
RA: Start early. The dialogue should begin at an age as early as three, especially when kids start asking questions about their bodies and in general. They should be given age appropriate answers to encourage conversation in the future. It is incorrect to use terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ touch because it colours the experience of physical touch – a dentist’s touch feels bad but is good for you. Similarly, a sexual touch may physically feel good but is bad for kids. Use ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ touch instead, linking sexual safety to everyday safety in younger children. It is an ongoing conversation, not a one-off ‘sit down and let’s get this over with’.
Comfort and consent: Cultivate a healthy and respectful attitude towards intimacy in the family as it goes a long way in creating comfort around issues of sexuality. It is important to maintain a culture of consent in families for non-sexual activities as well, like hugging, hitting, respecting privacy and when someone says no, especially when young children play. These everyday practices help to lay the groundwork for healthy, consensual relationships.
Be prepared: Often adults react with shock and disbelief when curious children come with queries. While this can be a reflex, it also has the potential to shut them out by inducing shame and guilt. Today there are several resources available easily. TARSHI (Talking about Reproductive & Sexual Health Issues) is a Delhi-based NGO that offers tremendous support through online resources that are free to download (the Red Book, the Blue Book and the Yellow Book cover all ages from young adulthood, to teenage and for parents). The YouTube Komal animated clip is also a popular video that is safe to watch with children.
Be attentive and approachable: Make a conscious effort to listen to children. This helps create an atmosphere of trust and goes a long way in encouraging kids to talk about their issues. Creating a clear understanding of happy and unhappy secrets in the family is also a factor that can discourage people from taking advantage of a child’s innocence.
While governments and educators continue to debate the spectrum of sex education required, it is clear that we cannot depend on the Indian schooling system to provide comprehensive sex education. As a developing nation, we are grappling with some serious issues – alarming rape statistics, unreported marital rape, rampant child abuse, intolerance towards homosexuals and transgenders, – that have their roots planted firmly in a lack of holistic understanding of sex and sexuality. We can no longer afford to be squeamish and live in denial.
It’s time we talk about sex, sexuality and body safety.