Editor's note: Today we welcome Deepali Gaur Singh, writing from India. She has experience in childcare, health, and education; she will be covering reproductive health issues on the continent of Asia.
At a time when even children from rural marginal families in one part of India—the southern state of Karnataka—are engaging in information dissemination on HIV with a specific focus on stigma and discrimination, adult policy-makers in five states of the country have rejected the new syllabus introduced by the national government's Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) featuring sex education as a dedicated subject for middle school students. Just as the central government gets credit for taking one of the most proactive steps with regard to both education and children in recent times (by directing all states to include the subject in their curriculum), and with the training of teachers also underway, it's ironic that the resistance to the move has come from just about every quarter possible.
The arguments have ranged from the bizarre to the absurd. With one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS incidence in the country, health activists in the western state of Maharashtra have often blamed the lack of awareness and education for the problem. And yet the reasoning behind the ban has been that it will impact the impressionable minds of children. Well, that is what the syllabi had hoped to do—impact their minds in a progressive, positive way. The central state of Madhya Pradesh which already had the Adolescence Education Programme (AEP) running for two years for senior students has decided to terminate it because "sex education has no place in Indian culture." The embarrassment for the government is that it is the student wing of the majority party running the show at the national level who have objected to the use of graphic anatomical pictures in the kit meant for teachers of the course. Yoga, it has been suggested, should be included in the curriculum in place of sex education. Last I heard, the otherwise extremely profitable form of physical exercise and meditation has still not come up with a cure for HIV/AIDS, child molestation and abuse. Even the south Indian state of Kerala, with extremely high levels of literacy, has also blushed over the issue seen by many as too explicit, suggestive, and unfit for Kerala's conservative society, exposing the clear displacement between literacy and education.
If the predominant argument for the spread of AIDS continues to remain "cultural decadence stemming from sexual anarchy," the contents of the modules are bound to raise the heckles of the self-proclaimed moral police. Clearly envisaged as a more creative and interactive syllabi, the modules include breaking myths surrounding homosexuality; activity sessions around sexual molestation and its prevention; suggestions of safe sexual activity without actual intercourse; and hence, have invited protests as they deal with issues which continue to be forbidden in the more conservative Indian social society. So with accusations ranging from a backdoor for sex tourism to institutionalising promiscuity, the programme certainly faces turbulent times.
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A prominent figure from a right-wing opposition party even went to the extent of decrying foreign aid organisations for attempting to push their agenda of western education on the eastern (Indian) mindset without understanding the Indian ethos. Apparently in his times they were taught about the "birds and the bees" through the birds and the bees! Well it might be useful to put in a word here that the birds and the bees do not figure in child abuse and pornography.
A government commissioned survey recently revealed the alarming figures that more than half the children in the country have been victims of sexual abuse with perpetrators whom they trust. And the incidences in the 5-12 age group were higher. Evidently, wearing blinders and walking around will not change the fact that young, adolescents and even pre-adolescent girls and boys are part of rape statistics; that AIDS is, in fact, on the rise; that a substantial percentage of married couples still don't know how to conceive; that child marriages are still a reality in this country; and that wives contract the virus without knowing how to protect themselves.
Many parents fear that sex education would in fact be seen as a tacit approval of sex. The fact that they are already exposed to it through irresponsible sources, which makes the knowledge dispensed more dangerous, does not seem to be an argument on their radar. Teachers themselves are unprepared and unwilling to handle the subject, though they might be a more responsible person to answer inquiries in the controlled setting of the classroom. It is important that youth understand it at a time when sex is not yet a predominant preoccupation for them and that they understand sex within the boundaries of biology. Personal discomfort and social ethos cannot be the agenda to deprive students of an avenue of self-protection.
The fact of the matter remains that most parents have shirked the responsibility of being the informers for their children. Having grown up as a generation, which "survived" without their own parents addressing the subject and "managing" along the way, the assumption is that their children would do the same. Well, their children do manage, but the issue here is how dependable are the sources they manage from. These same reluctant parents are also teachers, hence the extended reluctance to teach sex ed is not a surprise.
As the various political parties slug it out with the central government and its education ministry over this contentious issue, young students with queries might just find solace in turning to their more informed peers—like the young guns in Karnataka, armed with their animated CD-ROMS, films and comic books dealing with questions that even adults seem to squirm away from handling.