Unlike many of her peers, India's Minister of Women and Child Development (WCD) seems to have achieved a semi-iconic status amongst the youth primarily because of the passion she brings to causes (though followed-up by many questionable policies and schemes). Characteristically, Renuka Chaudhary did not disappoint at the 4th Asia-Pacific Conference on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (4thAPCRSH) in Hyderabad, especially while talking on the issue of sex education when she said, "no one wants to talk about it (sex) since we are too busy doing it." Quite true considering the opposition that the sex education curriculum in India ran into — and yet China and India together seemed to be poised to single-handedly change the global demographic profile in years to come.
The cultural beliefs, practices and rituals in the Asian region ensure that sex is a taboo subject across most social set-ups. So when spouses rarely talk about it openly with each other, gaining acceptance for young adults outside of marriage talking and learning about it seems a dream. Practices hinged on traditional and orthodox attitudes and values ensure that sex is only for procreation and hence any form of non-reproductive sexuality must be discouraged. And that is essentially what defines the manner in which even sex education is viewed.
But the truth is that teen pregnancies are on the rise in the region. And sexual violence by young adults against each other is also becoming more rampant because the arenas for information and exposure are through misrepresented, clichéd sources where women more often than not are objectified. So while the young men in their experimentation are the scientists, the young women their lab rats. Besides, with children in most developing countries struggling to earn for their families, they find themselves vulnerable in an adult environment. And the cycle of abuse doesn't end as victims of abuse often tend to also perpetrate abuse in their adult relationships.
These are issues that need to be tackled at the roots. While sex education might not be the sole solution against abuse, information from more reliable sources, especially in an environment where accessibility to images through the media and the internet is so high, it goes a long way in preparing young adults and children to protect themselves in potentially dangerous situations. Morality and culture being "polluted" by sex education makes little sense in India, where both the incidence of child marriages and child sexual abuse is extremely high — especially with a lot of abuse generated within the security of their homes. Information and comfort with their own bodies, what constitutes a good and bad touch, are important in helping adolescents in protecting themselves.
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The conference at Hyderabad heard voices of the youth. Many young speakers perceived that older voices have been speaking on issues of the youth, when the youth need to be given more space to air their thoughts and ideas for policies meant for them to reach them and work for them. The Young Parliamentarians Foundation, New Delhi, wanted an inclusion of the youth in the Indian Parliamentary Committee that is at present seeking opinion across the country on the introduction of sex education. They believe that they should be allowed to review the contents of the sex education curriculum when it is finalized. Endorsed by the 4th APCRSH, members of a worldwide youth coalition, with 200 of its members participating at the conference, demanded that their right to sex education not be denied. An open letter to the governments of the region said that young people faced significant barriers to sexual and reproductive information, resources and services and needed "age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education that is evidence-based and non-judgemental." The ban on sex education by various Indian states was perceived as a denial of their fundamental rights to education, health and expression and on a global level as a violation of international commitments made by the Indian government.
It is only when one accepts the sexuality of the youth as a reality that any real and greater commitment from the political leadership can be expected. Making quality health services available from within national budgets is really more a matter of political will and less of resources and technology. Ironically, while state governments in India continue to use culture and tradition as arguments against sex education (seen as a Western concept) and drag their feet on introducing sex education in schools, countries like Cambodia and Indonesia, with similar cultural traditions, have already done so. And while sex education continues to be contested by churches, several Catholic schools in Pakistan have introduced sex education. Bali, meanwhile, has opted for a phased curriculum, introducing sex education in various subjects such as biology and sociology, a clear indication how sex education – to impart or not to – has become an important part of political discourse even as the fate of many young lives dangle precariously. But in India, for instance, a Catholic priest favors yoga over sex education.
Poverty today cannot be simply confined within its economic parameters. It constrains access to already scarce development resources to people – even more so with young people and women – living with HIV and AIDS, those seeking safe abortions and everyone living in vulnerable circumstances. With a lot of opposition to sex education guided by politics of the day and state weighed against the considerable number of lives at risk, it is this politicizing of sex education that is to be seen as "immoral" and not sex education itself.