It’s a key area of their lives in which they have a desperate thirst for guidance.
But parents, who spend hours on end with their children discussing their choice of subjects, career, clothes, friends or even movies, will hem, haw and wriggle out of the conversation when it comes to sex.
Colleges will offer counsellors, career counsellors, psychologists and mentors — but no one to talk to students openly about this integral part of their lives.
Most of their peers are equally unsure and confused.
So how do young girls in their teens and early twenties satisfy their intense curiosity about sex? They read the newspapers’ sex columns, they trawl the Net for any kind of information, they check out pornographic material. And they plunge, largely unprepared, into sexual activity.
How smart is that?
Not very, they admit. And plead: why can’t we have a “youth-friendly clinic” where we can take all our questions and doubts?
That was the suggestion that came from a full 95 per cent of interviewees in a recent nationwide survey conducted amongst girls aged 15 to 25 years, by city doctor Duru Shah, along with researchers of the Federation of Obstetrics and Gynecological Societies of India (FOGSI).
Considering that 41 per cent of the girls said that media was their only source of information about sex and contraception and only 16 per cent of those who were sexually active used contraception during their first sexual encounter, their plea is understandable.
Though it might perhaps surprise parents and educational institutions alike, who tend to think, ‘They’re smart; they’ll learn on their own.’
Like Suhasini Gawde (50), who does not feel the need to talk about sex with her daughter Snehal (19). “Girls learn these things on their own as they grow up. My mother did not discuss any such issues with me but I managed,” she says.
But, counters Puja Pednekar (21) a Mass Media Student, “Having various sources of information confuses us all the more.
How are we supposed to know what to trust — the Internet, books or newspapers?”
And, young girls clarify, they’re not looking for relationship advice; just medical information and objective guidance.
“The clinic should have doctors and psychologists. We need someone trustworthy to go to in case we need any help,” adds Saie Shetye, (20) a Psychology student. The medical angle becomes even more important when the problem is one of contraception or an unwanted pregnancy.
The figures are telling: less than 48 per cent knew about condoms and only 29 per cent knew about contraceptive pills. Less than 47 per cent had even discussed contraception with their partner.
Given most teens’ reluctance to discuss sexual matters with their parents (“My mother would start keeping tab on my activities if I asked her about contraception or even sex,” explains one 20-year-old from Bandra) schools and colleges should ideally fill the gap.
But most schools’ sex education classes are woefully inadequate, say students. (Only 35 per cent of the girls interviewed believed they had a ‘fair idea’ of the female reproductive system.)
Some schools just skip such classes altogether. Says Beula Pimentom, a teacher at St Columba girls’ school at Haji Ali, “School is not the right time to introduce sex education as students are still too young to understand it. It should be done in junior college.”
And Abha Dharampal, principal, Utpal Sanghvi School, Juhu, declares firmly, “We believe that sex education is more the parents’ business than ours.” She adds, “We do not have special sex education programmes. But we have a school counsellor whom the students can approach if they have any queries.”
However, Kiran Bajaj, principal of the Greenlawn High School, Breach Candy, has a more inclusionary approach. “In India, it is not possible for children to talk freely with their parents about such issues,” she points out. “Hence, in our opinion, schools should take up the responsibility. The higher classes like the 9th and 10th are, we think, at the right age.”
The school not only conducts sex education programmes but even imparts special training to the teachers who conduct the course.
An equally welcome, though cautious approach comes from Principal K.S. Jamali of the Viacon High School in Khar. “There is a lot of information available on the Internet. But it is important for students to use the right information. So we have a sex education programme spread over two to four sessions for students of the 8th and 9th classes,” she says. But adds, “We give them basic information about the menstrual cycle and hygiene but we definitely don’t discuss things like safe sex.”
Till recently, sex education programmes in schools merely talked about the female reproductive system. With changing times, however, a few schools are upgrading their course material.
Ahana Azgaonkar (15),student of the Prabhadevi Convent Girls high school, says, “Till Class 7 and 8, we are told how to take care of ourselves during puberty. In the ninth and 10th, they spoke about pregnancy and contraception methods. It was very useful as it is important for us to know about these things.”
Sheela Haridas, who has, for four years now, been conducting a 10-day Life Skills programme for ninth standard students of the I.E.S Modern English School, includes contraception, AIDS, sexual abuse and drug abuse in her course.
“We also encourage students to interact freely and get all their misconceptions cleared,” she says.
By the time girls get to college, however, matters have become almost lackadaisical. Most colleges have no special sex education programmes, but a dreary-sounding Women’s Development Cell as directed by Mumbai University.
“Not too many visit it often. Although more girls than boys drop in, the response is still low,” admits Kirti Narian, principal of Jai Hind College.
At St Andrews College, however, there is an ‘Education To Love’ programme that tackles contraception and abortion. “We try our level best to make it as interactive as possible,” says Dr Marie Fernandes, principal.
Colleges often have a psychologist on campus as well, though the slot is often filled by the Psychology professor.
Since students may not exactly be comfortable sharing their most intimate problems with their professors, some colleges have roped in students as well.
But clearly, these efforts are nowhere near enough. "I come across many young girls who are quite unaware about sex-related issues," says Dr Rajan Bhonsle, MD, consultant in sexual medicine and counselor.
Significantly, he says, “The girls consulting me are looking more for solutions than preventive measures.”
That finding is also reflected in the questions that most young girls want answered (see box); they are largely concerned with the results of sexual activity; they’re not looking for how-to guidance.
Sexologist Dr Shirish Malde, of the Sexology In Harmony counselling center at Dadar, confirms, “The number of sexually active girls coming to us is more than that of girls who are not.”
He notes that most girls in the 15-to-25 age group get their information from their peers and “they are misled very often, since their peers are equally ignorant.” The sexually active girls want to know about “non-penetrative sex, contraceptives and irregular menstrual cycles,” he says.
He also has an alarming revelation to make. “Propaganda about the recent i-pill (an emergency contraceptive pill) is spreading rampantly. It has become the most used contraceptive now and it could prove dangerous if this trend continues.” That’s precisely the kind of objective, non-judgmental guidance that young women are looking for.
As Priyanka Kulkarni (21), a copywriter with Thinkers AdAgency, says, “Sex clinics for youth are a great idea. But the idea will work only if the person sitting across the table is knowledgeable, reliable and has the ability to tactfully convince youngsters about the importance of awareness about sexual matters — and not make it sound like a boring lecture.”