The Importance of Early Sexual Education in Indian Schools
Vinaya Bharam- Student, Kautilya
In a country that houses a population of 1.38 billion people, talking about sex is still taboo. Sex education programs in India receive backlash from parents, conservative religious organizations, and cabinet ministers. Pre-marital sex is viewed as immoral and sinful by many. It is considered against our culture; hence there is no need to educate children about sexual health.
According to the United Nations Population Fund, Sexual Education, “aims to advance and strengthen the ability of children and young people to make conscious, satisfying, healthy and respectful choices concerning relationships, sexuality and emotional and physical health”. Studies have shown that sexual education at an early age improves the health of children. The World Economic Forum and other experts assert that Comprehensive Sex Education can prevent rapes. A study conducted at Columbia University shows that sex education in school protects students from sexual assault in college (Santelli et al., 2018).
In India, chapters on reproductive biology are not taught in many schools. Since sex is a private topic, some—primarily teachers—believe it should be taught at home, not in school. Regardless of place, many girls are not told about menstruation before it begins since it must be hidden. Young boys are not taught about menstruation because “it does not concern them” and is still a taboo topic. Children are deprived of understanding the critical changes in their own bodies. Such stigmatization of sexual education results in adolescents facing sexual and reproductive health issues that are, in fact, preventable.
Contree Foundation conducted a survey of 1,008 men and women from 21 villages aged between 14 to 19 to study whether adolescents know about sexual and reproductive health. The sample included both married, and unmarried males and females.
Unsurprisingly, the survey results established that Indian adolescents do not have access to comprehensive sexual education. The study found that a higher number of adolescent boys lacked information on Sexual and Reproductive Health as compared to girls. This could be because some mothers briefly explain what marriage entails to girls before their wedding. As shown in the graph, 74% of married women said that they received some information about methods of contraceptives and pregnancy. 54% of unmarried women and only 36% of married men reported having received some information on the same. The numbers are even worse for unmarried adolescents: 18% of unmarried men reported having such knowledge. Overall, there has not been much improvement in teenage pregnancy, as mentioned in the 2017 National Family Health Survey-4 to the latest National Family Health Survey-5. Under Ayushman Bharat, the Government of India launched the School Health Program in 2018. In early 2020, NCERT released the ‘Health and Wellness Curriculum’ for the program. This program that teaches sexual education to students does not even mention the word ‘sex’; instead, it uses the phrase ‘adolescence education.’
Among the 11 modules, two focus on reproductive health and HIV prevention; safety and security against violence and injuries. Highlighted sections in the school health program are concerned with sexual and reproductive health. This program will choose one male and female teacher from each public school as ‘Health and Wellness Ambassadors’ who will be trained to teach and conduct sessions and activities. While it is considered better than its predecessor, this program lacks some crucial components to make its vision successful.
- Incorporate Comprehensive Sexual Education guidelines put forth by the UNPFA. The four-year-old children should be taught what consent is. Basic knowledge of menstruation should be given to girls before they hit puberty: in primary school instead of middle school. They should also be taught to differentiate between ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch,’ to help children reach out to parents if they face unwanted touches from others. Since many children face sexual abuse/harassment in India, educating children early will help protect them.
- While the modules include some education on gender identities such as mentioning “[G]ender is socially constructed and thus can be changed over time. We are all equal and deserve to be treated equally,” it does not go deep enough to educate them about the gender spectrum and sexual orientations. There is a need for robust inclusion of education on gender identity and sexual orientation to sensitize students about women’s rights and Queer rights.
- The curriculum’s focus should range from preventing STIs and pregnancies to where and how people can seek help if they are either infected with an STI or have gotten pregnant accidentally.
- The stigmatization of sex and its education is so entrenched in Indian society that the curriculum must focus on the normalizing conversation around these subjects.
- At least one session must be conducted for each age group that educates parents about the sexual and reproductive health of the children and how they can support them.
- The central and state education ministries were not consulted while drafting this curriculum. They are important stakeholders and should be given the opportunities to contribute. Moreover, this program should be integrated into the new National Education Policy.
- The government should train ‘Health and Wellness Ambassadors’ so they can serve as professional sex educators. Some civil society organizations have worked in this domain for years.