Special Report

Special Report

Ill-advised resistance to sex education

Even as India has emerged as a global flashpoint for housing the world’s largest number of AIDS infected people and a shocking report of the Union government indicates that 53 percent of children are subjected to sexual abuse, several states have banned sex education even in senior school. Summiya Yasmeen reports

Sexual hypocrisy is la vice de l’ Inde. In the society which gifted the world the Kamasutra, the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho, the sexy Bollywood song-n-dance numbers featuring close-ups of gyrating hips, bosoms and thighs beamed 24x7 over 100 television channels usually watched en famille, educating children about preventive, safe and/or responsible sex is taboo. According to elected representatives of the people countrywide, parents, teachers and other adults would prefer sex education to be kept out of school classrooms.

Therefore in March, the reputedly ‘progressive’ states of Karnataka, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh banned sex education in all schools within state boundaries. Never mind that India is emerging as a global flashpoint for housing the world’s largest number of AIDS infected people (5.7 million), and a shocking report of the Union ministry of women and child development released on April 9 indicates that 53 percent of India’s children are subjected to sexual abuse.

The conclusions of the report came as a shock to Renuka Chowdhury, Union minister for women and child development. "Child abuse is shrouded in secrecy and there is a conspiracy of silence around the entire subject. The ministry is working on a new law for protection of children’s rights by clearly specifying and stiffening punish-ments," she said, while releasing the report. But quite obviously the option of providing children sex education so they can protect themselves didn’t occur to her.

Ditto state level politicians (under the Constitution of India education is a concurrent subject) who control and administer state government schools. "At any cost we won’t allow sex education in state-run schools," thundered Basavaraj Horatti, primary education minister in the JD(S)-BJP coalition government which rules Karnataka (pop. 57 million), on March 18. Likewise on March 30 Maharashtra (pop. 98 million) education minister Hassan Mushriff promised to "withdraw sex education textbooks from all schools in the state."

In Madhya Pradesh BJP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan went a step further: he instructed the state’s education department to replace sex education in schools with yoga classes and discourses on Indian traditions and values. Earlier even the education-friendly states of Kerala (literacy: 91 percent) and Gujarat (70 percent) issued similar injunctions to proscribe sex education in schools.

Contrary to liberal belief, state-level politicians are in fact articulating public opinion. Massed behind them are strident spokespersons of Hindu fundamentalist political parties, Islamic organisations, teachers’ unions and women’s groups — the so-called moral brigade/guardians who were in the forefront of the agitation which forced closure of innocuous dance bars in Mumbai and Bangalore. The immediate provocation for these morality guardians was a reported circular of the Union ministry of human resource development enjoining all state governments to implement its Adolescent Education Programme (AEP) in classes IX and XI in all schools under their jurisdiction from the academic year beginning June 2007. (Despite best efforts, EducationWorld correspondents countrywide were unable to acquire a copy of this mysterious circular).

Nevertheless there’s no disputing that AEP is reality and that a great deal of cogitation, deliberation and spadework have been invested in the programme. The curriculum and textbooks have been developed by the department of education (Union ministry of HRD), National Aids Control Organisation (NACO), Unicef and the National Council of Educational Research & Training (NCERT). Moreover AEP has a long history stretching back to the National Health Policy of 1978, and National Population Education Project of 1980 which was later integrated with the School AIDS Education Programme.

But only in 2006 did the HRD ministry direct all the 8,632 schools affiliated with the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) to introduce AEP as a co-curricular subject to be taught for 16 hours per year for classes IX and XI students. Yet since only a handful of CBSE schools had enrolled their teachers for the AEP training programme, it was a non-starter last year. However according to sources in CBSE, (which falls under the jurisdiction of the HRD ministry/NCERT) all affiliated schools have to compulsorily introduce AEP in this academic year beginning June 2007.

India’s ticking AIDS bomb

Since the first case was reported in India (Mumbai) in 1986, India has earned the ignominious reputation of harbouring the largest number of immuno deficiency virus (HIV) positive population worldwide (in its final stages of maturity the HIV virus transforms into AIDS). The United Nations Aids Programme (UNAIDS) estimates that 5.7 million Indians were HIV-infected in 2005. This heterogeneous epidemic is mainly concentrated in six states in the industrialised south and west, and in the north-eastern tip of India. HIV prevalence is highest in the Mumbai-Karnataka corridor, the Nagpur area of Maharashtra (NB: Karnataka and Maharashtra have banned sex education), the Nammakkal district of Tamil Nadu, coastal Andhra Pradesh, and parts of Manipur and Nagaland. On average, HIV prevalence in these states is four-five times higher than in other states of the Indian Union.

HIV infection spreads through the transfusion of infected blood and/ or infected needles and syringes; sexual contact through infected semen and/ or vaginal fluid; multiple sexual partners and/or homosexual encounters and from infected mothers to children. In India, 84 percent of all HIV infections are attributed to unprotected sexual contact. This is perhaps the most important reason why schools need to offer reliable sex-related information about ways and means to practice protected sex.

Based on HIV prevalence among various risk groups, the National Aids Control Organisation (NACO) has classified India’s 29 states and four Union territories as high, moderate or low:

High prevalence: 45 districts in the states of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Manipur and Nagaland

Moderate Prevalence: Gujarat, Goa and Pondicherry

Low prevalence: Apart from the six high and three moderate prevalence states, the rest of India falls into the low prevalence category

Meanwhile as far back as 2003, alarmed by the rapid spread of the AIDS epidemic in India, the Delhi-based NACO and affiliated AIDS prevention societies together with Unicef had already introduced AEP in a few select state government schools countrywide. For instance in Karnataka, the Karnataka State AIDS Prevention Society (KSAPS) in collaboration with Unicef introduced the Adolescent Education Programme in 9,373 higher secondary government schools in 2003. After it was field-tested by Unicef, AEP was handed over to the Karnataka state education department to implement with help and support from KSAPS and the health department. Since then, as many as 16,000 teachers have been trained to teach AEP’s life skills module.

Curiously AEP which has been running in 9,373 state government schools across Karnataka for the past three years, didn’t raise the official hackles of the Congress government in the state. But after the Congress was voted out of office in 2005 and a coalition of the rustic JD(S) and right-wing BJP took charge, the new education minister Basavaraj Horatti was quick to sympathise with the refusal of a handful of school teachers in Raichur district to expose their students to the "obscene AEP manual". Subsequently on March 17 this year, the All India Democratic Students’ Organisation (AIDSO) and its affiliate All India Mahila Samskruthika Sanghatane (AIMSS) held a convention in Bangalore where a resolution demanding the complete withdrawal of sex education textbooks in schools in Karnataka was passed and presented to Horatti.

At the centre of the current sex education controversy is the content of the manuals and flipcharts used to deliver AEP, a programme which essentially covers AIDS prevention, safe sex, life skills, sexual health and physical and emotional changes experienced during adolescence. Critics of the programme allege that the language and illustrations used in the manuals are "too graphic, in bad taste and demean Indian tradition and culture".

"There is no rationale for introducing sex education to young school children. It’s well-known that truck drivers and sex workers are the main carriers of AIDS, not innocent school children. The AEP teaching manual reads like third rate pornographic literature replete with graphic pictures of the male and female body. It’s more like propaganda material for the contraceptive industry rather than a ‘life skills module’. For example in the chapter ‘How can I protect myself’, it is suggested that if a student decides to have sex, he should always use a condom. Other suggestions to demonstrate affection include cuddling, kissing and holding hands. Such sex-related discussions in classrooms could lead to promiscuity and might destroy the cultural and moral fabric of society. We will step up our protests to ensure that the perverted AEP is fully withdrawn from all schools," vows V.N. Rajashekar, the Bangalore-based secretary of the All India Democratic Students’ Organisation.

Some of the blame for the resistance to sex education in schools must be laid at the doors of the authors of AEP. They could have ensured that an introductory sex education programme in a conservative society was presented more sensitively. A mix of graphics- intensive flipcharts, role play activities and lessons are used to deliver the AEP. The role play activity which has aroused the most indignation among teachers and parents is set out on page 187 of the Life Skills Module and requires teachers to help children perform an "immune system dance". In this lesson the message of safe sex is conveyed by a girl protagonist requesting a boy who asks her to dance to wear a ‘condom cap’ — a crude analogy by any standard (see box p.65).

In particular NCERT which is the country’s largest and most experienced school texts publisher should have advised NACO-Unicef to tone down the text/graphics and often foolish role play exercises included in the lessons. Unsurprisingly in Maharashtra, some school teachers have stridently protested against following the AEP curriculum in their classrooms. "Our children are not habituated to a situation where topics relating to sex are openly discussed, and it will be very awkward trying to conduct such classes," a Mumbai-based teacher told EducationWorld’s Gaver Chatterjee on condition of anonymity.

Likewise in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous (166 million) and socio-economically backward state, government school teachers are refusing to enroll for sex education training programmes. Consequently AEP has been introduced in only 5,028 of UP’s 1.34 lakh government schools. Says Emily Das, a Lucknow-based consultant who is working with the state’s secondary education department to implement AEP: "Given the social stigma attached to AIDS and sexuality, a majority of teachers avoid attending training sessions for fear of being labelled sex teachers. Moreover the training syllabus of AEP is insensitively structured and causes embarrassment to teachers, many of whom are women. For instance some questionnaires required to be filled by every trainee are offensively worded, prompting many teachers to drop out of training because they don’t want to answer them. Some teachers have suggested that they will be more comfortable teaching adolescent education in schools other than their own. All these suggestions merit consideration. We must reassess the teacher training programme if we want to make AEP a success."

The sudden, widespread resistance to AEP has surprised the top brass in NACO and Unicef, who claim that the manuals were prepared after exhaustive consultation with state education departments and state AIDS control societies. A NACO official points out that in its foreword the AEP manual advises state education departments to freely adapt the content to suit local conditions. "The toolkit content is based on materials which have been field tested. It is recommended that prior to printing of materials, the materials be adapted to the state specific contexts," says the foreword.

In fact in ultra-conservative Uttar Pradesh where AEP has been introduced in some schools, the state’s education ministry has adapted the AEP manual in anticipation of protests from Hindu and Islamic fundamentalist political parties and organisations. The clinical and morally neutral AEP manuals have been invested with moralistic advisory content. Already introduced to class IX and XI students in 5,028 government higher secondary schools, the text material is written in the style of bland biology lessons but also takes a moral stance. For instance in a chapter titled ‘Physical changes and life threatening illness AIDS’, a paragraph reads: "Humans were religious and self-controlled in earlier days. Now they indulge in immoral and same sex relations freely. In the last 50 years they have crossed all limits… Those who visit prostitutes sign their death warrants. Smoking, drinking, adulterated food stuff and unnatural lifestyle lower the body’s immunity and leave people vulnerable to AIDS."

Comments Sanjay Mohan, former director of secondary education in Uttar Pradesh: "We don’t use the term ‘sex education’ because the social system is not comfortable with it. Instead we have carefully introduced an adolescence education programme in our schools. This year we intend to extend the AEP to another 2,000 schools across the state. The curriculum has been developed in consultation with the UP State Aids Control Society and Unicef, and focuses solely on ways and means to prevent AIDS. We acknowledge this is a sensitive subject. Therefore we have modified the AEP content so that while it educates children, it doesn’t give offence."

But while there is a case for treading gingerly, educators in the states also need to take a firm stand on the matter of introducing sex education in senior school by shedding exaggerated fears of the forces of conservatism and self-appointed guardians of Indian culture. The argument that if children are exposed to sex discussion in classrooms, it will open the floodgates to pre-marital sex and promiscuity, needs to be taken head on. The rising incidence of sexual abuse of children, increasing number of teenage pregnancies, and alarming spread of the HIV-AIDS virus countrywide, are compelling reasons for a stronger official stand on the issue of sex education for teenage children. Moreover there are a plethora of surveys and studies which prove that far from encouraging promiscuity, sex education programmes prompt the deferment of sexual activity, encourage youth to have fewer partners and motivate use of prophylactics (contraceptives).

It is also quite logical to assume that provision of accurate information on sex and sexuality by trusted and trained teachers will prevent students from seeking information from unreliable sources and/or engaging in harmful learning by experimentation. With distorted and glamourised misinformation about sex and sexuality readily available on television, from peers, pornographic literature and on the internet (a random survey estimates that there are more than 3,500 sex-related websites on the net), it’s not only children but also an overwhelming majority of adults who are confused about sex, sexuality and HIV-AIDS issues. A recent survey of 250 members of Parliament found that over half of them believe they could be infected by the HIV virus if they share cookware with infected persons, and 40 percent thought they could be infected by working with HIV positive people.

"A compelling argument for introducing structured sex education in classrooms is the crying need to provide accurate information on sex and sexuality by trained teachers, counsellors and parents. The level of awareness among adolescent Indian children on matters of sexuality is rock-bottom with neither parents nor teachers offering advice and information. Open and culturally sensitive discussions in schools will not only help children clear popular misconceptions, but will also enable them to develop positive attitudes to sex and inter-personal relationships. Moreover the rapid spread of HIV-AIDS in India necessitates sex education so that young people can take safe and responsible sex-related decisions," says Florence David, programme director (administration) of International Services Association (estb.1982), a Bangalore-based voluntary organisation focused on promoting adolescent health and spreading awareness about HIV-AIDS. In the past 15 years INSA-India has conducted education programmes in 1,057 schools and colleges across the country.

Although the alarming spread of the AIDS virus — the consequence of unprotected and/or ignorant sexual activity — is the main argument advanced in favour of introducing sex education in classrooms, an equally compelling rationale which Indian society has swept under a very bulging carpet, is child sexual abuse. As indicated above, a recent study conducted by the Union ministry of women and child development has made a shocking revelation that 53 percent of children in India are subjected to sexual abuse, and 70 percent keep quiet about it. The survey conducted in 13 states with a sample size of 12,447 found that the highest number of child sexual abuse incidents was reported from Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Assam and Delhi. More than 50 percent of children admitted to abuse in ways that ranged from severe — such as rape and fondling — to milder forms of molestation that included forcible kissing.

AEP: Paras of contention

t the centre of the sex education controversy raging countrywide, are the manuals and flipcharts used to deliver the Adolescene Education Programme (AEP), a sex education programme for senior school (class IX onward) which covers AIDS prevention, sexual health, physical changes during adolescence, protected sex, and life skills. The AEP manuals were designed and developed by the department of education (Union ministry of HRD), National Aids Control Organisation (NACO), Unicef and the National Council of Educational Research & Training (NCERT). The HRD ministry has recommended AEP to be taught as a co-curricular subject for 16 hours per year for classes IX and XI students in secondary schools countrywide.

Critics of the programme allege that the language and illustrations used in the manuals are "too graphic, in bad taste and demean Indian tradition and culture". Given widespread awareness of Indian society’s sexual puritanism, the authors of AEP could perhaps have introduced formal sex education more sensitively. Some of the impugned passages and role play activities are excerpted below:

"The four main kinds of contra-ceptives include: barrier methods (condoms, diaphragm); methods that prevent the ovary from releasing the egg (birth control pills, Depo-Provera); methods that destroy the sperm cell — creams/foam/jellies (which contain spermicidal agents like Nonoxynol 9 etc); and methods that prevent the fertilized egg attaching to the uterus (IUD, Copper-T)" — From the chapter ‘How can I protect myself’

"If you are having penetrative sexual (vaginal, oral and anal) intercourse you should be using a condom. You need to use a condom correctly every time you have sexual intercourse. Young people need to either stop having penetrative sexual intercourse (you can continue to have safe sex, like mutual masturbation, touching, rubbing, etc), abstain completely from sex or use a condom." — (ibid)

"During vaginal intercourse a man puts an erect penis into the vagina. Following ejaculation, semen containing millions of sperm enters the uterus through the vagina. If the ovary has released an egg — then the sperm may encounter the egg in the fallopian tube. A woman is fertile for about 24 hours after an egg leaves an ovary and is in the uterine tube…" — From the chapter ‘What is Conception’

"Children should be made aware of sexual abuse at an early age. Age appropriate sexual information should be given to children at every stage, so that they are less vulnerable to abuse. And if they are abused, sex education will give them the vocabulary and confidence to report it to adults," says Maharukh Adenwalla, a Mumbai-based former standing counsel of the Legal Aid Society of Maharashtra who specialises in providing legal aid and advice to juveniles and young offenders.

Unwarrantedly alarmist and regressive education ministers in Maharashtra and Karnataka where sex education even in senior school has been banned, could perhaps learn a few lessons from the deep south state of Tamil Nadu (pop. 62 million), where sex education has been provided from class IX onward with little fuss for the past decade. The Adolescent Education Programme was introduced in Tamil Nadu in 1997 and today over 9,423 government, corporation and matriculation schools statewide have included it in their curriculums. The programme is being supervised by the Directorate of Teacher Education Research and Training (DTERT) in collaboration with the Tamil Nadu State AIDS Control Society and Unicef.

Says Dr. P. Perumalsamy, the Chennai-based director of the DTERT: "AEP is a 16-hour programme spread over a year, customised for class IX and XI students in Tamil Nadu. It discusses health and hygiene, the male and female anatomy, sex and sexuality in a scientific and educative way. The initial embarrass-ment of parents and students has given way to positive attitudes towards the subject. Adolescence education is very critical and children must be made aware of topics such as protected sex. I’m pleased to report that AEP is running successfully and smoothly in Tamil Nadu, without any opposition from parents, teachers or politicians."

The enlightened response of the Tamil Nadu government to the NACO-Unicef AEP has beneficially impacted the entire secondary school system through the state. The overwhelming majority of the state’s 150 CBSE affiliated schools also offer AEP. Indeed CBSE schools in TN were among the few countrywide to introduce AEP in 2006 as per the board’s directive. "Our AEP curriculum delivered by specially trained teachers covering topics like drug and child abuse, internet pornography etc is introduced in class VI. But children in classes VI-VIII are taught only the basics of these subjects while class IX onward students are educated in HIV-AIDS prevention, safe sex and sexuality. Initially the response of parents was lukewarm but now they have accepted its necessity. The negative reaction of the Maharashtra and Karnataka state governments to this programme is wholly unwarranted. CBSE’s adolescent education programme is well-designed, easy-to-teach and child-friendly," says S.S. Nathan, principal of the CBSE-affiliated Bala Vidya Mandir which has an enrollment of over 2,000 students of both sexes.

But while the Union HRD ministry controlled CBSE — the country’s largest pan-India school examinations and certification board (no. of affiliated schools: 8,632) — has acknowledged the validity of AEP and has issued an executive order that all affiliated schools must accommodate it within their curriculums, India’s other pan-India examination board, the private sector Council of Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE) hasn’t taken a formal position on AEP. But its affiliate schools, the country’s most avant-garde and liberal secondaries (Doon School, Dehradun, Sri Ram School, Delhi, Mallya Aditi, Bangalore, among others) have voluntarily integrated sex education in their curriculums.

For instance in Mumbai, the CISCE-affiliated Lilavatibai Podar Senior Secondary School introduced its own customised sex education programme from class VI onward in 1999. Designated the Healthy Lifestyles programme, it was developed in collaboration with doctors, counsellors, teachers and parents to cover subjects such as drug abuse, physical and psychological changes in teens, sexual abuse, etc. "I can’t understand why such a fuss is being made about introducing sex education when it can be taught in an effective and positive way. Our experience is that teachers, parents and students are enthusiastic and comfortable discussing the subject. It’s absolutely necessary for children to know about good and bad touch, AIDS prevention and drug abuse as early as possible. We’ve been imparting such education for the past eight years without any student, parent or teacher opposition whatsoever," says Norina Fernandes, principal of Lilavatibai Podar Senior Secondary School, Mumbai.

Regressive politicians and ideologues intent upon farming vote banks of conservative rustics and neo-literates, tend to cite parental and teacher resistance to sex education as an inhibiting factor. However according to Prof. Jawaharlal Pandey, the Delhi-based national coordinator of the National Population Education Project of NCERT, surveys conducted by NCERT between 1994-97 indicated that 80-90 percent of parents, teachers and other adults are in favour of introducing adolescence education in schools.

"Parents and teachers will always be in favour of education which empowers and helps children grow into confident adults. But given our social system, which is slow to respond to new ideas, introduction of sex education should be preceded by advocacy. Education policy makers, opinion leaders, state legislators, parent groups and teachers should be briefed about the importance of imparting carefully structured sex education by trained teachers and/or counsellors. Current opposition to the introduction of sex education even in senior school, is due to the failure to prepare the ground through pre-introductory advocacy," says Pandey.

In this context it is important for educators, opinion moulders and the intelligentsia to bear in mind that views on best packages and methodologies to deliver sex or adolescence education will always differ. Therefore there’s the danger of endless debate or ‘analysis-paralysis’ which is a defining characteristic of post-independence India’s socio-economic development effort.

With the nation’s politicians playing to the galleries, the onus of introducing this overdue corrective into school education has devolved upon parents, teachers, educators and voluntary sector activists, who must ensure India’s 40 million secondary school children receive the vital life skills education which will protect them from child sexual abuse, drug abuse, HIV-AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, and equip them to make responsible sex-related decisions. This is a potentially explosive issue that doesn’t brook delay.

With Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai); Vidya Pandit (Lucknow); Autar Nehru (Delhi) & Gaver Chatterjee (Mumbai)