The Taboo around Adolescent Sexuality Education

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There is a compelling need for sexuality education in India.

A normal teenage adolescent mind goes through a lot of difficult turmoil. Today, when teenagers experience the lack of a firm support system, especially the absence of one that encourages and welcomes discussion, they reach out to their one omnipresent and omniscient companion. You guessed it — the Internet. While there is a plethora of fascinating and enlightening information on the internet, there is also no dearth of misleading, ambiguous, transphobic, bigoted and harmful content on the web, readily available for mass consumption. This raises the question — Which road of influence are our teens headed on?

Imagine being a teenage girl who hasn’t been clearly briefed on what menstruation is and finding yourself in a fix every month during the first few years of puberty. You would be utterly lost and confused about the changes taking place in your body and emotions, while being addled regarding whether or not you can approach or ask somebody about it. The same applies for a teenage boy too. Unable to make sense of what they are going through, teenagers tend to seek help. When a teenage boy and his peers find themselves at a dearth of understanding the basic concepts of human biology, they naturally turn to the consumption of content on social media, which then begins to influence them. This exposure to unedited and freely accessible content leads to the shaping and forming of their perception about girls and women on the whole. The same applies for teenage girls too. While Indian schools perform an otherwise excellent job at training students to be at par with their global peers, we are yet to get over the notion that sexuality education will end up distracting students and plant “wrong” ideas into their heads.

With reports of teenage pregnancies and sexual abuse in India ever on the rise, the ideal expectation would be that a holistic curriculum be introduced within high school education — a genus of education that covers topics of gender equality and the significance of individual consent and boundaries, while also covering menstruation, reproduction and related topics. However, the very idea of sex education in India is a controversial one. It is a topic that is considered offensive to the Indian value system. The argument that goes hand in hand with this notion is that excessive knowledge about the same might lead to risk-involved sexual and promiscuous behavior among the teens. Which then also plays into the concern of repression of sexuality in the country.

When the Adolescence Education Programme for schools was launched in 2007 by the Central Government, 13 states called for an instant ban stating that such comprehensive sexuality education went against Indian culture. 10 years have passed since then and the Programme still stands banned in at least 5 states in India.

Sexuality education, as the UNESCO defines it, “provides opportunities to build decision-making, communication and risk reduction skills about many aspects of sexuality… encompasses the full range of information, skills and values to enable young people to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights and to make safe decisions about their health and sexuality.” The biggest deterrent in the initiation of a proper system of sex education in our country is all the harangue about social ethos, decency, discreet mannerisms and cultural boundaries that we are expected to hang onto.

The Population Council of National Study on “Youth in India” (2006–07) concluded that out of India’s total population of over 5,00,000 youngsters, barely 15% had access to information regarding sex from their parents or teachers. We need to realise that unguided and inauthentic information will lead to unhealthy sexual practices amongst teens. Enlightening our teenagers about the importance of safe sex, birth control and consent is the need of the day.

The general consensus is that the introduction of such an education will pioneer an unrequired discussion on sex and its nature. “The myth is that everyone is going to talk about sex”, says Dr Sunil Mehra, Executive Director of MAMTA Health Institute for Mother and Child which hosted the 11th World Congress on Adolescent Health (October 27th to 29th, 2017). The effort is, however, to initiate a discussion on and around the topic, which will help reduce the stigma attached, so that students feel free to approach their elders when in doubt and in times of need.

Research also claims that comprehensive sexuality education postpones sexual initiation and brings down the rate of sexually transmitted diseases. While rates of sexual violence against women are infuriatingly inflating and discriminatory mentalities towards women persist, the addition of basic sexuality education in India is of utmost importance. Anju Kishinchandani, famed gender and sexuality educator, argues that our government is “abdicating its responsibility” by outsourcing sexuality education, if at all, to non-profit or private organisations.

The challenge is to nurture young adults who are comfortable and confident in who they are and how they interact with others, in a healthy and respectful way, with everyone, across the gender and sex spectrum. This is what sex education entails. Comprehensive sexuality education does not teach teens about how to have sex, rather it informs them about the changes taking place in their bodies and teaches them how to make healthy and safe choices as they grow up.

While we constantly hear about the political, technological and economic development of India on the whole, it’s time we also make way for the social, psychological and cultural development of our country and its growing population by tapping into them while young. The key to empowering the youth of today is education — the right kind and amount of education, at the right time.

In a compelling move, the Union Health Ministry, under the leadership of Health Secretary C.K. Mishra, has put together the radical resource manual “Sathiyaa” on sexuality and reproductive health, to be circulated among over a lakh of adolescent and high school peer educators. These educators are challenged with engaging the country’s adolescents in discussions on forms of sexuality, sexual practices, gender-based behaviour and issues of reproductive health. While the effectiveness of the curriculum remains to be tested, the initiative is, nevertheless, the first step in bridging a hitherto huge gap between the knowledge dearth on the said issues and its availability to adolescents.

Open dialogue needs to be encouraged within family circles and even schools. As of now, neither many teachers nor many parents address the conflicts and doubts that pass through the minds of adolescent children and teenagers. Many of us shy away from explaining and discussing these topics with teens and those who do, usually end up mocking or reprimanding them.

It’s high time or rather, the right time for our schools to introduce basic sexuality education for adolescents and teenagers. On the other hand, it is also important to create a comfortable and an approachable space at homes which allows them to ask, discuss and opine about issues they grapple with. Children and teenagers will genuinely start opening up about their worries and concerns, their doubts and queries, when they realise that their families are no longer conservative, but rather supportive and understanding of the challenges they have to face on a daily basis.

How about this as a start?— You see an extremely sexist and misogynistic portrayal of women in an advertisement. Could we ask our teens about their opinion on this? Instead of practising our tendency to quickly switch channels when an item number is being played on television, could we not ask them what they think and feel about the song and the portrayal in it? Teenagers are inquisitive. If not from us, they will find ways (and they aren’t always healthy) to seek the knowledge that they are barred from accessing. Can we then try, to not hide facts, and rather let boys know the reason behind their sister falling sick once every month? Can we not ask them if they like someone in school or college, and whether or not they are having any emotional difficulties with the same? Can we not ensure and promise them a comfortable space, in our presence, where they can come and inform us — without a second thought — if they are ever abused or harassed? Can we not ensure that our teens learn about the facts of life from accurate and supportive sources, rather than from easily downloadable mobile content? Can we not, or won’t we?

The right kind of knowledge along with the right amount of support and value system leads to the nurturing of healthy and well-adapted youth who know when and where to respect their and others’ personal boundaries. The idea is to empower and equip the growing population of teenagers with unambiguous and reliable knowledge about themselves, and to ensure they become confident, aware and responsible human beings. What do you think?

 

Feature Image Credit: Joel Filipe on Unsplash.  Author concept — The unnecessary and silent chaotic mess around the idea of sexuality.

 

Jerin Jacob is an Educator and the Chief Editor at One Future Collective.

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