A 13-year-old can give consent for sex in Spain, making it the country with the lowest age of sexual consent in the world. In Italy, consent can be given at 14, with a close-in-age exception that allows 13-year-olds to have partners who are less than 3 years older. The country has some safeguards, such as the age of consent rising to 16 if one of the partners — teacher, tutor, step-parent or prime minister — has some sort of influence on the other. For most countries in Europe, the ages of sexual consent vary between 15 and 18.
And unlike what our right-wing champions of culture will have you believe, these countries are not struggling with problems of paedophilia, teen pregnancies and unfinished schooling. This is because sex education — reproduction, sexual health and rights — begins as young as 9, with children being taught what is acceptable and what is not.
In India, on the other hand, we believe everyone is a virgin till they get god’s sanction to have sex to procreate as a wedding day gift. The result is gang rapes and teen pregnancies that we read and hear about every other day.
Girls as young as 13 getting pregnant is not uncommon, with girls under 15 accounting for 30% of complicated pregnancies. The reason, say gynaecologists, is because most young girls don’t know how to deal with the situation and are too scared to ask. At that age, most don’t use any form of contraception and are too embarrassed to go to a doctor or an adult after unprotected sex.
The trouble is that most talk about sex in Indian homes is still limited to celebrity scandals, if at all. Parents do not want to talk about copulation — I’ve even heard a colleague complaining about Animal Planet’s corruptive influence on his child’s worldview — and would rather it was taught at school. Schools, at best, show students a heavily edited film on sex education that leaves children more confused than enlightened. They look for answers on the Internet, which has unfortunately emerged as the biggest source of information — more wrong than right — on sex for teens across the world.
Some countries, however, are getting it right. Researchers at Edinburgh University found school was the main source of information on contraception and sexual health for almost half of boys and one-third of girls aged 15, compared to peers being the chief source a decade ago in 2002. Schools in France are a step ahead, insisting on 30 to 40 hours of sex education from the age of 10, with condoms being distributed to students from Class 8 onwards.
We live in a country were 21% boys and 28% girls get married below the legal age of 18, and one in five of the 1.5 million — 15 lakh — girls married under the age of 15 become mothers. Obviously, adolescents are having sex, it’s time they were allowed to talk about it intelligently.
Given India’s puritanical views on sex education, parents cannot depend on schools to educate their children, where teachers have to deal with 30-50 students from diverse backgrounds. Students, anyway, seldom ask questions about sex because they don’t want to sound ignorant before their peers.
How you explain things to your child depends on how curious your child is. If she is asking questions, share information in the best way you can using her vocabulary. If she is not, do it anyway between the ages of 9 and 10. It’s better if children get correct information from you than half-baked ideas from their friends, which can wreck their attitudes to sex for life.