Campaign Spotlight: No Sex Please, we are Indian

The 2006 Behavioural Surveillance Survey (BSS) found that 8.4% of Indian young people (15-24 years) are sexually active. According to a study in 2007 on child abuse by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in India, out of a total of 12,447 children (5-18 years), 53.22% reported having faced one or more forms of sexual abuse, ranging from mild to severe. Among them 52.94% were boys and 47.06% were girls. These findings make a mockery of the belief that young people do not know, need not know, and, have nothing to do with sexuality because they are protected by Indian culture and tradition. 

Although abuse and violence are not and should not be the only standpoints to advocate for sexuality education, they become important to consider, especially when more than 10 State governments in India have either refused to allow sexuality education in the school curriculum in their respective States, or are considering doing so. The reasons given are myriad including that it is against Indian culture and tradition, it is a ‘western’ import, and it will encourage young people to engage in ‘promiscuous’ behaviour. There are also those who feel introducing sexuality education in schools would lead to providing more opportunities to abusers to sexually harass and abuse young people. 

Therefore, there has been severe criticism from certain politicians on the recent move of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India to introduce sexuality education in the form of an Adolescence Education Programme (AEP) in the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) affiliated schools all over the country. 

The AEP for 14 to 18 year olds to be implemented in 8,632 CBSE schools has thus run into trouble. The sexuality education package for teachers was developed by the Ministry of Education and the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) in consultation with UNICEF. Education and health are State subjects in India’s federal system. State governments are allowed to modify and devise their own curricula and teaching aids to reflect local sensibilities. As many as 11 of India’s 29 State governments have either banned or are in the process of dropping sexuality education from the school curriculum. 

Granted, that it is not easy for people to talk about sexuality especially in a context when sexuality is equated only with the act of sex when in reality it is much more than that. Sexuality per se is taboo and the boundaries become all too clear when it comes to sexuality and young people. Young people are often seen as devoid of agency to take responsible decisions regarding their own lives. The discomfort that adults feel when talking about sexuality often translates into restricting any positive, affirming information on sexuality as well. 

What do people, apart from the politicians who are using this for political leverage, think about sexuality education? The Hindustan Times-C fore survey (reported on July 30, 2007) in the five metros of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Bangalore, found that 68% people wholeheartedly approved of sexuality education for school children, 20% clearly opposed the idea and 12% were in two minds. The tally of believers who want sexuality education for all teenagers is 93%. Of this 56% want sexuality education at the secondary level and 37% favour incremental coursework, while 7% want it at the primary level. A significant 78% want lessons on safer sex, including contraception. Of this 26% disagree that contraception promotes sexual activity. 6% believe sex education should begin at home. 47% support classroom lessons followed by 33% who prefer a combination of teaching at home and school. One-third of the 20% who oppose sexuality education believe that it is against Indian culture and a clear majority (67%) of the 20% is worried that it might ‘corrupt’ young minds and lead to teenage pregnancies. 96% of the respondents are parents of adolescents. 

The latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS 3) shows that 16% of girls between 15 to 19 years were pregnant or had already had their first child at the time of the survey (covering the period 2005-2006). ‘We are not giving ideas to young people,’ National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) chief Sujatha Rao said in an interview reported by Reuters on May 17, 2007. ‘They are already there. Some people are in denial that young people experiment with sex. They need to get real’ she told Reuters. 

Different NGOs and other civil society groups are furiously debating this issue. On October 1, 2007, the Parliamentary Committee on Petitions, of the Rajya Sabha (the Council of States) invited public suggestions on the introduction of sexuality education in CBSE affiliated schools. Two petitioners had appealed to the Rajya Sabha that there should be a national debate on the subject and a consensus arrived at before introducing sex-education in CBSE affiliated schools. There has been nationwide media coverage on the issue on television and through newspapers and magazines. The ban on sexuality education has thus provided an opportunity to begin an open discussion on these issues. So, while there are people who are strictly against sexuality education of any kind with reasons such as ‘we never received sexuality education and we got to learn about the birds and the bees on our own and so will the next generation’, or ‘compelling’ reasons of culture, religion etc, there are also those who are searching for and debating the best ways to impart this education. There have also been some very interesting questions raised such as: What should sexuality education include? How can it be integrated within the school curriculum? Should it be introduced as a different subject altogether or could it be integrated as part of the entire curriculum? What is the most appropriate age to introduce sexuality education in schools?

One hopes that the policy makers will base their decisions on rational thinking and not on chauvinistic and moralistic ideas of culture. Banning sexuality education will only impede efforts to prevent HIV, unwanted pregnancies, and sexual abuse and thus put young lives at risk. It will also give the message that sexuality is dirty and shameful, when in fact it can be one of the greatest sources of joy and pleasure in life. Access to comprehensive sexuality education is every child’s right.