As the U.S. Government takes steps to reduce funding for abstinence only programs, the
Government of India has moved in the opposite direction, with a decision that
there should be no sex education in Indian schools. The Committee on Petitions,
composed of members of the Parliament of India (Rajya Sabha) and headed by the
Indian People’s Party’s Venkaiah Naidu, has decided that India’s "social
and cultural ethos are such that sex education has absolutely no place in
it." The Committee reviewed and rejected the Ministry of Human Resource
Development’s Adolescents Education Program (AEP), concluding in its report that AEP "is a cleverly- used euphemism
whose real objective was to impart sex education to school children and promote
promiscuity." In response to arguments that AEP disseminates essential
information on HIV/AIDS and safe sex, the Committee’s report makes the narrow-minded and
unfounded conclusion that there is no "credible study or survey that could
establish that the school children in the age group of 14 to 18 years were in
the high risk group prone to HIV/AIDS."
AEP itself was not
without its critiques. The Delhi-based group, TARSHI
(Talking about Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues), which prefers
the term "sexuality education" because they consider it a broader and more
encompassing approach, issued a call for action last year, arguing that AEP
provides scant information on sexual transmission and how to protect oneself.
They further condemned AEP for underestimating the ability of young people to
make decisions about their own lives and criticized the lack of information in
the curriculum on reproduction, healthy sexual relationships and gender
identity, with only one reference about those who do not identify with the "mainstream
TARSHI’s Manager of
Programs, Prabha Nagaraja, discussed with me their open letter campaign to the Government, all
political parties and citizens of India, initiated in February to
advocate for sexuality education. Highlighting that India
is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the
letter observes that failure to provide sex education denies the right to the
highest attainable standard of health, the right to education, the right to
participation and the right to protection from exploitation and abuse,
including sexual exploitation and abuse. The statistics demonstrate the current
failure of the government to guarantee these rights. At
the time of the National
Family Health Survey III (NFHS III), 16 percent of
women aged 15-19 years were already mothers or pregnant at the survey.
Additionally, according to a 2007 study by the Ministry of Women and Child
Development, out of a total of 12,447 children, 53.22 percent reported having
faced one or more forms of sexual abuse.
Rather than recognizing
the need for sex education, the government has responded with a deplorable decision to eliminate all sex education in
schools, one that has been criticized extensively. The director-general of National Aids Control Organization (NACO), Rao,
who responded by saying, "If all Indians are bramhcharis [a reference to
being morally pure or celibate], then how come 30 percent of all HIV infections
at present are within the age group of 15-24 years?"
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However, sex education
extends far beyond the issue of HIV and the decision to ban sex education has
united civil society in opposition. One such group is "Gains & Gaps-
ICPD+15: A Civil Society Review in India," a loose conglomeration of
organizations and networks working in the fields of women’s rights, human
rights, health rights and sexuality. Members include the Centre for Health and Social Justice (CHSJ), Jagori, Jan Swasthya
Abhiyaan (JSA)/Peoples Health Movement India, National Campaign for
Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), Population Foundation
of India (PFI), Positive Women’s Network, SAHAYOG, SANGRAM and (Social Upliftment through Rural Action (SUTRA).
Gains & Gaps has submitted a petition appealing for the Committee to overturn its
decision on sex education.
Jaya Velankar, a consultant with the Center for
Health & Social Justice, explained to me their goals in submitting this
petition: "Through this petition we want our government to recognize and take
necessary steps to impart age appropriate, non-moralistic and fact-based
sexuality education to adolescents and youth both in schools and out of
schools. It must also make efforts to dispel the fears and myths that people
may have in their minds." The group emphasizes the social aspects of
sex education, including the formation of attitudes about the self,
relationships, sexual behavior and diversity, reproductive health and gender
roles. It is also advocating for
developing young people’s skills so that they make informed choices about their
behavior, and feel confident and competent about acting on these choices.
Advocacy against the
government’s stance is also about busting myths. The coalition argues there is
no evidence that the introduction of sex education leads to an increase in
sexual activity among youth, not to mention that according to the National Family
Health Survey III, young people in India are already sexually active.
Of those aged 15-24 years, 51 percent of women and 27 percent of men, state
that they have had sex, with 10 percent of women and 2 percent of men in this
age group indicating that they had sexual intercourse by age 15.
Sex education plays a
pivotal role in guaranteeing rights to sexual diversity, sexual health and
choice for all, preventing HIV and other STIs, unwanted pregnancies,
discrimination and homophobia. In the words of Velankar, "As a signatory to Program of
Action that emerged at the International Conference on Population &
Development in Cairo in 1994, the government is committed to encourage
reproductive health education amongst adolescents. This year being the 15th
anniversary of Cairo,
we hope the government will take appropriate action."