Comprehensive Sexuality Education

1. Sexuality education…? Did you mean sex education?

Sexuality education is different from sex education. We prefer to use the term Comprehensive Sexuality Education or CSE because it is more encompassing and inclusive. Providing information on sexuality is not the same as teaching someone how to have sex. It includes an understanding of gender roles and identities, information on sexual anatomy and physiology, on how sexuality is related to wellbeing, on how one’s sexuality interacts with family or community, how that makes one feel, talking about one’s choices in sexual partners, expressing one’s sexual identity, etc. Sexuality education provides young people the knowledge, skills, and values they require to be able to grow up happy and healthy. CSE also helps in the emotional, physical and psychological development of the students.

2. Why do children need to know all this? Won’t they figure it out on their own?

Parents, teachers and concerned adults want their children to grow up gaining knowledge and awareness on living a healthy, happy and fulfilled life. In addition to putting them through school, we enroll them in classes to learn music and the arts, play sports etc. Then why not talk to them about their body and mind?

And young people today have a variety of sources from which they can get incomplete, inaccurate and possibly harmful information, ranging from the internet to their peers to movies. Wouldn’t it be better if instead, their trusted adults give them accurate information?

The aim of sexuality education is two-fold. Along with reducing potentially negative consequences of sexual behaviour like unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections and child sexual abuse, it also increases wellbeing by enhancing the quality of life and relationship of young people.

Comprehensive Sexuality Education is not a one-off lecture about the ‘birds and bees’. It is an ongoing process of providing accurate information about the body (in language suited to the age and stage of the young person), and also having conversations about values, attitudes, issues, rights and responsibilities. It is about helping them navigate the changes in their body and how they feel about it; how to give and take consent; how to understand the diversity in gender or body types; what relationships or marriages entail, among others.

Therefore, CSE is a serious matter and requires to be treated as such. Systems and curricula need to be in place in addition to training and other support being provided to teachers. And all children need CSE, irrespective of their age, gender and whether or not they have a disability.

3. We grew up without getting this information, and we’re doing just fine. Why do today’s children need CSE?

Thinking back, surely we will be able to come up with some questions we had as young people, to which if we had got answers, we would have been saved some confusion, worry or embarrassment! As concerned adults, we have the responsibility to ensure that today’s young people don’t go through the same confusion or worry.

Giving young people information about sexuality does not give them a green signal to experiment. When young people are given age-appropriate information that is accurate, balanced and addresses safety, responsibility, and protection, without being judgmental or fear-based, it empowers them to make informed choices. Studies such as UNESCO’s six-country study (including India) affirm that young people need correct information, to be in a better position to make responsible and safer choices for themselves.

There is a consensus among mental health professionals as well as among educationists and sociologists that curiosity about sex is common and normal. The opposition to sexuality education is an unfortunate development, outdated in this Internet age wherein urban and rural youth anyway have access to (frequently inaccurate) information about sexuality. Poorly informed friends, media and the Internet cannot be the sources of sexuality education for young people. Children should receive accurate, age appropriate, and culturally compatible information on sex and sexuality.

4. But Indian culture and values dont support this kind of teaching in schools!

Culture is a mixture of many beliefs and practices, not all of them benevolent. Sati and child marriage were also part of Indian 'culture' but people do not generally demand that they be restored. Just because something was in our culture does not make it good and its absence from our culture does not make it bad in and of itself.

In addition, culture is not cast in stone. It is changing and evolving. For example, thirty years ago, it was uncommon for South Asian women to pursue professional courses and degrees; today, it is generally expected that women will compete for professional courses and have a career.

‘Culture’ in schools has also changed significantly compared to 10-15 years ago. Many teachers today incorporate the latest technology in their teaching; asking students to go online to collect information for a project is commonplace now. New courses have been introduced in schools to keep up with the skills required of young people in the coming years. So why not CSE?

Sexual behaviour within the realm of so called `Indian values’ has included sexual violence and abuse in the name of custom and tradition. The Study on Child Abuse: India 2007 commissioned by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India, shows that out of 12, 477 child respondents, 53% reported having faced one or more kinds of sexual abuse. The percentage of boys abused was close to, if not higher, than the girls. And a significant share of abuse was perpetrated by people known to the child, not strangers. By not discussing CSE related topics in schools or at home, we are putting young people at risk of abuse and infections.

And we’re not just talking about abuse here. For a long time, our education systems have implicitly denied the importance of addressing adolescent sexuality – at least, not in ‘our backyard’. However, the truth is that these issues are everywhere – teachers we have interacted with talk about students’ relationships, questions they have about their gender identity, students’ engagement with gender equality, etc. This means, issues related to sexuality are clearly the elephant in the room that we cannot ignore!

In fact, the Indian government acknowledges the importance of giving young people in school information for their physical, emotional and psychological development. Here are some programs that are currently ongoing:

5. Okay, I’m convinced! What do I do next?

At TARSHI, we have some resources that can help you get started!

  • For young people below the age of 18, check out The Red Book (for people aged 10-14) or The Blue Book (for people aged 15+) that they can read about the changes they are experiencing and their journey towards adulthood.
  • If you are a parent or a concerned adult wondering how to start talking sexuality with young people, The Yellow Book has tips and tools, information and advice!
  • If you are an educator or a counsellor at a school-type setting, you can read The Orange Book, which has information and exercises that will help you discuss sexuality-related issues with ease. You can also do an eLearning course based on this book for a hands-on, visually interactive experience learning how to discuss CSE.