According to a 2013 study, in India there is a wide gap between the number of people who consider sex education as important and the number of people who actually receive it. Now, this is both encouraging (81 per cent of the respondents felt sex education is essential) and worrying (only 49 per cent actually received it) at the same time.
A few years ago the National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) and the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) proposed that an Adolescence Education Programme (AEP) be made a part of secondary and higher secondary school curriculum in the country. The objective of AEP, among other things, was to help students develop a healthy attitude and responsible behaviour towards sexual and reproductive health, including knowledge about HIV/AIDS.
Needless to say, much controversy ensued. Subsequently, a parliamentary committee constituted by the Guardians of Indian Morality claimed that sex education will “corrupt” the young minds of India and promote promiscuity—which is a little like saying teaching children maths will turn them into roving gamblers. (If anything, it has been proven time and again that sex education delays the start of sexual activity among young people and encourages those already active to practise safer sex.) In effect, many states banned AEP and there was merely shoddy execution in other states. (A comedy club came out with this video in response to the ban, where the teacher starts the sex education class by erasing the word “sex” from the board.)
With the State too busy protecting the “social and cultural ethos” of its young people, it would appear that the onus is now on private and non-profit organisations to give kids the 411 on the birds and the bees. There are numerous such sex educators (individuals and organisations) out there doing their best to educate children, as well all enlighten parents on the need for sex education.
Mind you, sex education goes beyond teaching just the biology of it. It covers everything from teaching young kids the difference between good touch and bad touch, helping older children develop a positive attitude about sex and sexual health, instilling the idea of agency, especially among girls, respect for partners, and so on. There is always the squeamishness factor that forms a part of all discussions on sexual health, which scares away even willing parents from giving their kids “the talk”. But what if there were creative and fun ways to teach children about how our bodies work and what sexual health entails that wouldn’t elicit any chi-chis and hai-hais from the sanskar bots?
I didn’t think it was remotely possible until I happened to watch this incredibly fun and educative video called “Me and My Body” created by Agents of Ishq in collaboration with an NGO called SNEHA. The video features a bunch of spiffy kids from Dharavi, Mumbai, teaching us in typical “Bambaiya ishtyle” a nuanced lesson on chromosomes, hormones, the gender spectrum (yes, not just the gender binary) and how our bodies function. There’s even a little dig in the video at the lack of sex education in schools. “I don’t understand all this,” says the young-but-eager-to-learn tapori hotshot. A girl replies, “Arrey, you should’ve paid attention in school!” and he shoots back, “But they don’t teach me any of this in school!”
The credit for this effort goes to Paromita Vohra, who is behind Agents of Ishq, a multimedia platform for creating positive conversations about sex, love, and desire. The kids are adorable, and more than that, they are informed and can probably beat any adult on their knowledge about the functioning of the human body. The content is informative, filled with desi humour, and is immensely creative. Such refreshing ideas are exactly what we need to help sex educators as well as parents start conversations with children regarding their bodies and sexual health.
One aspect of sex education that rarely makes it to mainstream media is the inclusion of children with disabilities. Sexuality and disability are seldom talked about in the same breath. So acknowledging the need for educating children with disabilities about their bodies and sexual health is rarer still. One initiative I’ve been following is Sexuality and Disability, which works towards promoting the acceptance of the fact “that women who are disabled are sexual beings—just like any other woman.” Among other things, they conduct workshops in schools for visually impaired girls, where doctors speak with the students about sexual health and awareness, using tools like anatomy models. Through their workshops, students also learn the positive aspects of sex and sexuality, while dispelling false notions that attraction and flirtation can only be enjoyed by their sighted peers.
Perhaps in time our policymakers will wake up to the need for implementing a comprehensive sex education programme in all schools. It is imperative in India’s fight against AIDS. Surveys have shown that HIV is no longer just prevalent among the high-risk population (sex workers, truck drivers, and drug users). Today the infection has spread across all sections of society, including middle-class households. A 2007 National Family Health Survey by the International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS) and Macro International said that only 6 in 10 women aged 15–49 in India have heard of AIDS. Getting accurate data on HIV infection in India is challenging due to various factors, two of them being social stigma and lack of knowledge. However, according to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), India has the third-highest number of HIV cases: 2.1 million people. This, however, is probably a very conservative number. (Other reports claim the number is as high as 5 million). With a nod to the hip hop trio Salt N Pepa, let’s talk about sex, India.
“We must continue to speak up openly about AIDS. No progress will be achieved by being timid, refusing to face unpleasant facts, or prejudging our fellow human beings. In the ruthless world of AIDS, there is no us and them…And in that world, silence is death.”
Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary-General