In a country that reports high rates of teenage pregnancies and sexual abuse, one would think that the need for a curriculum focusing on gender equality, the importance of consent, and boundaries, would not be a matter of debate.
The reality, however, is that sexuality education for adolescents is a highly controversial topic in India. It is seen as offensive to Indian values, and concerns that it might lead to risky sexual behaviour and promiscuity.
Take the reaction when the central government in 2007 announced the launch of the Adolescence Education Programme in schools, along with the NACO, NCERT and UN agencies. Thirteen states called for an immediate ban as they felt that comprehensive sexuality education was against the Indian culture. Little has changed in the last 10 years. There is still a ban on Adolescence Education Programme in at least five states across India, and there is no uniformity in the way the subject is approached.
Sexuality education, as the UNESCO defines it, “provides opportunities to… build decision-making, communication and risk reduction skills about many aspects of sexuality…. encompasses the full range of information, skills and values to enable young people to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights and to make decisions about their health and sexuality”.
“The myth is that everyone is going to talk about sex”, says Dr Sunil Mehra, Executive Director of MAMTA Health Institute for Mother and Child which is hosting the 11th World Congress on Adolescent Health from October 27 to 29. “In fact, it is about knowing your body, consent, interaction with the opposite sex, colleagues and friends,” adds Dr Mehra.
Research shows that comprehensive sexuality education delays sexual initiation and leads to a fall in sexually transmitted diseases.
“The fact is that there is sexual activity going on,” points out Dr Mehra. “Earlier it was within marriage but it is still happening at an explorative level. “The more one understands that, the chances of risky behaviour are lower. So are chances of coercion and physical violence.”
This is critical in a country like India where rates of sexual violence against women are high and discriminatory attitudes towards women persist. For a meaningful social change, reaching out to boys and girls on issues like consent and gender equality becomes critical.
Programs on the ground like Ehsaas by SNEHA in Mumbai and YP Foundation in Delhi, to name a few, are trying to plug those gaps.
“We have to go beyond looking at controlling adolescent fertility from the perspective of reducing unwanted pregnancies,” says Ishita Choudhry, Ashoka Fellow and Founder of The YP Foundation.
– Shai Venkatraman is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Her Twitter handle is @shaivenkat
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