By: Rishita Nandagiri
At 13, I could (correctly) explain the reproductive system of a plant. I’d been rather intimate with the anatomy of a flower, drawing awful nudes of stamens and filaments and anthers. I used to think I’d get extra marks for effort – the shading took a while to get just right.
I’ve never needed nor used that information in the years since.
That same year, my classmates and I spent an entire Biology lesson on ‘not learning’ about the human reproductive system. Our teacher glumly informed us that we needed to tear pages X through to Y out of our textbooks or use markers to strike through the pages to show that we’d be skipping a chapter. *The Ministry of Education had instructed schools not to teach the human reproductive system that year. The human body wasn’t a discussion that 13-year-olds needed to be a part of.
It wasn’t some cruel jape, where they wouldn’t teach us the concepts but test us on it at the end of the year anyway. It wasn’t that the texts were incorrect. It was quite simply that we didn’t need to talk about reproduction, sex, or any of the other related concepts because we were too young to have that information, our minds too innocent to be polluted by these ‘ideas’.
Nearly 16 years later, I’m still unsure of what they meant by that; what they’d hoped to achieve other than ensuring huge gaps of essential knowledge in the minds of an entire set of 13-year-olds (they did sort-of rectify their strange rule and rush through the reproductive system the next year).
Studying the human reproductive system in a biology class is not Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE), it doesn’t even come anywhere near it. Yet, it was the only opportunity for a potentially positive discussion (even so specific to biology) about one’s body – I did not have any other avenues or spaces to have that conversation, or to even spark the thought of needing to.
The silencing of these conversations only adds to the echo chamber of misinformation and myths that frame our knowledge of our bodies and of our selves. The silencing only allows incorrect and inaccurate information to run rife without any checks or counter-knowledge, and affects the choices that we make – the choices we think are all that we have.
My first understanding of consent was not in relation to my body but in relation to what it means to sign a document. I did not know how to apply consent to my own body. I did not know that consent was more than just a simple ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ – that neither of these is a simple answer.
There was never a conversation about safe sexual activity because abstinence was the default expectation. We never had a conversation about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) because that too was outside the realm of possibility. Condoms were not easily accessible. You would see them at busy pharmacies behind a locked glass door, with the price tag too far away to see. And even if you did manage to get some, you wouldn’t really have the first clue of what to do with them.
Heterosexuality was the only sexuality, there were no others – nothing to see or read or experience. There was no queering here.
This was all the information I needed to know. This was all the knowledge I should have been shading into my own world, into my own identities.
It disappoints me that all these years later, the same patterns continue, that we walk the same grooves that we’ve etched into the world, that young people continue to be deprived of crucial, necessary information under the (ironic) guise of protection, that misinformation and myths and inaccuracies fester unchecked, that autonomies and identities and selves remain suppressed and unquestioned with no avenue for exploration.
But, is it enough to champion CSE alone? Will knowing change everything – will it clear the slate and let you draw new designs, explore new patterns?
I, perhaps naively, used to think it was enough – that knowledge was power, that it would cause tectonic shifts by the mere virtue of knowing. And perhaps it can, but I cannot ignore the thought that knowing something does not automatically translate into doing something or being able to do something. CSE, as with everything else, doesn’t work in a vacuum.
When I was a little bit older – nearly nineteen – I waited anxiously for my period and roundly berated myself. I should not be in this position, I knew better. And I did know better than to risk pregnancy or an STI – I’d learnt how to use a condom by then – and yet, there I was.
I was too afraid, too shy, too overcome to march into a pharmacy and ask for condoms – no matter how many ‘chattri hai?’ advertisements (Condom ads using a chattri, an umbrella, as a symbol of protection) I’d watched on television. Despite every mental argument I had with myself about how I wasn’t doing anything wrong, that I needed to protect myself, that I was young and liberated – I was too afraid of being found out, of being asked questions, of being judged, of getting into trouble, of being called names, of family and friends finding out and thinking of me differently.
My fear was inarticulate and probably without any basis in fact, but it was vast and it was overwhelming and I was consumed by it. The guilt, the constant on-edge, the secrecy, and the relief of my period finally showing up – none of that is how it should be.
Because no matter all my knowledge, I still couldn’t act on it.
A lot of this walk down memory lane is filtered through (class, caste, able-bodied, and passing) privilege – a lot of access to spaces and knowledge and books and people and power. This privilege both coddles and protects me but is not afforded to many people for any number of reasons.. And that needs to be understood within our CSE curriculum too, in our efforts at addressing the larger contexts as well.
The more I advocate for CSE programmes, and CSE language in policy documents and guidelines, the more I have to remind myself that it isn’t a magic bullet, it isn’t the one-shot answer. It forms a cornerstone, certainly, but our efforts to facilitate the choices we talk about need to align. CSE is not a blanket solution but needs to be localised and constructed to address local spaces, local needs and local realities.
As we work on ensuring access to CSE for all young people – disabled, LGBTQI, in low-resource settings – we need to also ensure that our efforts target attitudes, ensure access to services, and dismantle legal, social, cultural, economic barriers.
CSE alone is not going to dismantle the gates, turn gatekeepers into allies, or strike down discriminatory laws that contribute to an unsafe environment. CSE needs to work in an enabling environment: in one that shifts rights language from something just talked about to something one can exercise, grasp, understand, engage with and know. We need to build those enabling environments simultaneously and make sure that all that knowledge is translated into action.
* The author’s experience is from another country, but the issues are similar across several countries of south and southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa.
Picture Credit: Awaiting Bloom