OVER THE YEARS, sex education has been debated either in the context of concerns about population control or AIDS prevention. Does education about sex and sexuality have to be perceived only within the confines of these two arenas? In the wake of the Central Government’s attempts to introduce sex education from Class VI onwards, the refusal of State Governments of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Chattisgarh has thrown up other issues. It is no accident that these are states with significant Sangh Parivar presence in Government and their refusal stems largely from a perception that sex education will lead to corruption of Indian culture. In the context of their claim to be self proclaimed custodians of this “culture”, proclamations by Karnataka Minister Horatti that sex education will be replaced by morality education comes as no surprise.
While there is a need to openly and rigorously discuss the age-appropriateness of the modules and illustrations in the proposed curriculum, outright refusal to introduce sex education is disconcerting. Yet decisions like these need to be based on hard (even if unpalatable) facts, instead of hypothetical fears and misconceptions.
Firstly, a misconception that sex education is about biology and the sexual act needs to be clarified. Sex education looks at the total persona — our understanding of our bodies, our notions of intimacy in relationships, respect for each other’s autonomy, our evolution as sexual beings, our safety from sexual abuse, the development of a healthy attitude towards ones own sexuality and respect for different sexual orientations. It is also about reproductive health, the institution of marriage and family and the responsibility towards self and society in the context of procreation as well as pleasure. Most importantly, it is about comprehending the gendered socialisations that pave the way for sexual violence against women, children of both sexes and against transgendered communities. Reducing sex education to just education about sex, is an erroneous notion. And yes, it is about culture, a culture of dignity, respect, autonomy and responsibility — surely no one can quarrel with that?
Another fear is that sex education will provoke children to become sexually active. The truth however is that children too (not just adolescents) are sexual beings. Their explorations of their own bodies and childhood sexual play with friends and siblings has been recognised as normal and not dysfunctional behaviour. In a society where we squirm to openly acknowledge even adult sexuality, childhood sexuality has remained a taboo and an enigma.
At the same time, the sexual abuse of children by adults is now recognised as endemic. The study by Samvada, Bangalore in 1994 and National Study conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, UNICEF, and Save the Children in 2007, both note that child sexual abuse in India begins as early as age five, increases dramatically during pre-pubescence and peaks at 12 to 16 years. Twenty-one percent of respondents reported severe sexual abuse like rape, sodomy, fondling or exposure to pornographic material and 53% acknowledged other forms of sexual abuse with over 50% of the abusers being known and trusted adults.
Most of those abused emphasize that they did not understand what was being done to them. A misplaced trust in “family” or respected elders and the abusers’ confidence that the child will not be able to comprehend or disclose the abuse, have set the stage for such abuse and trauma. By not providing sex education that is age-appropriate and sensitive to social structures, governments are compromising the safety and mental health of our precious children.
Also, with 50% of girls in India married before the age of 18 and 40% before the age of 16, it is ironic that adolescent girls are considered ready for marriage, but not for sex education!
Among the economically better off where marriage age is increasing, not only are adolescents vulnerable to sexual abuse, their own sexual experimentation is more covert, loaded with shame and (mis)guided only by pornographic material devoid of emotional and psycho-social contexts of sexuality. Would it not make more sense to help them talk openly about their anxieties and desires?
While AIDs prevention might have led to a wake up call on sex education, the need for sex education goes far beyond the contours of the AIDS problem. The retrograde reaction from Hindutva bastions in the name of morality is both dangerous and distressing. Why is there such a fear of acknowledging sexuality and the problems listed above? Historically, Hindutva ideologues and other conservatives have constructed the Indian cultural nation with the Hindu woman as emanating piety, chastity, devoted wifehood and motherhood and the Hindu man as chaste and virtuous. As a response to colonial attempts to codify and change personal laws and practices that violated human rights, revivalists pressed for a subordination of domestic issues in the interests of “nation” formation. The revival of brahmanic patriarchy and control over men and women’s sexuality became central to establishing a national identity. Any domestic issues were blithely obfuscated as culture and problems of women attributed to rapacious, invader Muslims and thus externalised.
Today, attempts by our own government to address real problems caused by sexual ignorance are once again seen by these ideologues as “western” invasion that threatens our cultural identity and morality. Are we willing to place the honour of an imagined community before basic human rights, desires and safety of our children and youth? Is this morality?