Sex, in India, is a great leveller. For a country with a population of over 1.2 billion, that may sound like a lame statement. Everybody must be doing it everywhere, all the time. But be that as it may, the real uniting power of the word 'sex' is something else altogether — it is the public's enduring aversion to any mention of it in its daily discourse.
On the matter of sex education in schools, politicians and policy-makers tend to discover unlikely allies. An overwhelming number of parents as well as teachers are hesitant about telling young people the facts of life. Apart from the diffidence in bringing up the birds and the bees, there's the ogre called Bharatiya sanskar, often referred to as Indian culture, forever waiting for a chance to pounce on anyone who dare offend it. These days it doesn't take much to provoke the beast — a post on Facebook, a tweet or even a message forwarded on WhatsApp can land you in the clutches of the custodians of this hallowed culture.
Little wonder then, that the government has taken exception to the use of the word sex, as well as its cognates, in a policy document on directions for formulating sex education for school students. Instead of references to "sexual health", the paper mentions "the Adolescent Education Programme and National Population Education Programme". As far as euphemisms go, this beats "the birds and the bees" hands down.
The Union Human Resource Development Ministry website, on the other hand, says "imparting authentic knowledge to learners about Adolescent Reproductive and Sexual Health (ARSH)" is one of the objectives of the National Popular Education Programme. How, one wonders, did this 'offending' phrase manage to escape the scrutiny of sanskari hawk eyes?
Any obfuscation, in the rhetoric of policy or in real-life sex education classes, is not only dangerous but also patently insidious. Sex education, when not entirely avoided, tends to be reduced to a single-point agenda: awareness of contraceptions to prevent unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. There are votaries of sanskari thinking, such as Baba Ramdev, who claim they can cure HIV/AIDS as well as homosexuality (a "disease", according to Ramdev) through their miracle drugs.
Aware that mountebanks of Ramdev's ilk are a dime a dozen in the country, the AYUSH ministry recently proposed a law to prevent manufacturers of Ayurvedic, Unani and Siddha drugs from advertising cures for cancer, tuberculosis, diabetes and infertility. So far advertisements for condoms have not been banned, though their strictly heterosexual narratives reinforces the misbelief that homosexuality is unnatural. On this matter, it's hard to put the blame on condom manufacturers alone, since the Indian Supreme Court is of such an opinion anyway.
Beyond the cautionary tales of teenage pregnancy (every year four million girls between the ages of 15-19 give birth in India) and the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, there are many other reasons to make sex education mandatory across schools in India.
The 2011 Census reveals 30% girls married off in India are below the legal age of 18. According to a 2007 report, a survey carried among children across 13 states in India indicated 53% of the respondents have been sexually abused, though a majority have never made a complaint because more often than not the culprit involved is a person within the family or well-known to the victim.
Another survey by the United Nations International Children Education Fund (UNICEF), conducted from 2005 to 2013, shows 10% per cent of Indian girls might have experienced sexual violence between 10–14 and 30% during 15–19 years of age. About 20% of the drop-outs in Indian schools are due to girls reaching puberty, as menstruation, a taboo among all religions in India, shames them into staying indoors.
Finally, though the list of reasons to advocate sex education extends far longer, sexual preferences that depart from the straight path of heterosexuality remain unaddressed by most legal, para-legal and social systems in India, leaving millions of young people confused, depressed or filled with self-loathing during some of the most impressionable years of their lives.
A guideline to having sex safe cannot be the be-all and end-all of sex education either. At a fundamental level, the purpose of any sex talk to the young is to make the idea of the sexual act, as well as sexuality, an intrinsic part of their personalities and life choices, to make them feel empowered, and inculcate mutual respect among the sexes. To divorce the idea of pleasure from sex, to turn sex into a dirty secret or to make it appear undesirable would be to defeat the very notion of sexual health.
And now, here's a primer for how not to teach a sex education class.