With a population of about 243 million, India is home to the largest number of adolescents in the world . Most of these individuals are ill-informed about sexual health and abuse. The problem is aggravated by the fact that most Indians have their first sexual experience in their late teens or early twenties, especially women . This is reflected in the fact that India has a high rate of teenage pregnancies and about half of India’s pregnancies are unwanted . Additionally, the lack of knowledge translates to high rates of sexually transmitted infections for people in the age range of 15-19 . Comprehensive sex education helps to delay sexual initiation and reduces teen pregnancies making the need for it even more imperative . But it has now become essential to impart compulsory sex education in schools.
On the 21st of April, the Indian government passed an ordinance allowing death penalty for rape of a minor below the age of 12. The move was in reaction to a nationwide outcry against the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kashmir. The outcries are not new, nor are the reactionary changes in law. However, these reforms seem to address only the symptoms of what is a deep rooted social issue as there is no data which suggests that death penalty acts as an effective deterrent against sexual assault. With cases of sexual harassment seemingly increasing, the solution does not necessarily lie in harsher punishments but rather in shifting social attitudes towards gender and sexuality. These breakthroughs can be achieved by bringing sex education into classrooms.
The rampant nature of sexual abuse in India indicates that sex education has to go beyond informing students about the biological and medical factors related to intercourse. Young students need to be taught about gender roles, consent, and sexual abuse. A survey conducted by The Ministry of Women and Child Development found that 53% of boys and 47% of girls have faced some form of sexual abuse . These numbers are horrifying. Sex education in classrooms needs to be delivered in a manner which allows these children to understand abuse, protect themselves from it, as well as not engage in it. Beyond this, education also needs to talk about consent - especially for young men. The No Means No Worldwide organization conducted experimental ‘consent classes’ in Nairobi, Kenya, and found positive and immediate results. Rape cases in certain areas dropped as much as 50% and the percentage of young boys who intervened in an incident of harassment increased from 26% to 74% . These classes not only taught boys about consent but also about positive gender roles and respecting women. The classes will soon be implemented in all Nairobi high schools and considering the scenario in India, embracing such programs could be fruitful. On the contrary, a lack of sex education is linked with an increase in sexual violence. The long-term solution seems to be rather clear.
However, any attempts to initiate sex education were met with an immediate backlash from conservative groups. With increasing concern surrounding HIV AIDS, the government of India along with United Nations agencies introduced the Adolescence Education Programme (AEP) back in 2005. Twelve states banned the programme within two years of inception . Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan was quoted as saying, "sex education has no place in Indian culture” . M. Venkaiah Naidu – now Vice President of India and then member of Rajya Sabha – said the adolescent-education programme would “promote promiscuity of the worst kind, strike at the root of the cultural fabric, corrupt Indian youth and lead to the collapse of the education system and the decrease of virginity age [sic]” . A parliamentary committee revised the programme and information on sexual intercourse, arousal, masturbation, as well as pictures of male and female anatomy were removed.
Despite the resistance, there have been other initiatives taken by various governments in recent years to deal with the ignorance around sex. In 2014, the National Adolescent Health Programme was started and aimed to establish health clinics for adolescents in villages. In 2017, the Union Health Ministry distributed a progressive and holistic resource manual to adolescent health educators. And in 2018, the Modi government launched a new health programme for schools that outlined novel ways in which sex education can be imparted to younger kids. On the surface, these steps are certainly positive, but it is in terms of implementation that cracks begin to appear. Most adolescents are unaware of the help available. With regards to the aforementioned health clinics, no more that 5-10 percent of teenagers in villages were aware of their existence . According to a 2017 study, only 4-7 percent of boys and girls received knowledge from an accredited social health activist . There is also a lack of clear and uniform teaching methods.
However, the greatest threat to sex education reform in India continues to lie in conservatism and religious fundamentalism. Under the guise of religion, a number of right-wing groups have opposed the establishment of a strong sexual awareness programme as was the case with AEP in 2005. Studies have found that a large majority of parents are in favour of sex education but those in power tend to side with political groups . In a country where issues of sexual abuse, consent, teen pregnancies and women empowerment are becoming increasingly grave, sex education becomes crucial.
The road to achieving sexual awareness is paved with many roadblocks. There is a clear need for the government to be far more vocal about these initiatives and not shy away behind the veil of ‘culture’ as it only encourages rape culture.
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