In a society in which innuendo and allusion are the preferred modes of communicating sexual desire even for the adults, the notion that adolescents are also sexual beings predictably makes us squirm. Whether it is as parents or as teachers, as aunts or uncles, many of us would rather push this possibility underground into our secretive subconscious.
It’s no wonder then, that the human resource development ministry’s Adolescent Education Programme (AEP) has run into hot water, because its safe sex message forces us to face the reality of sex being on the adolescent agenda. Nine states have already banned the programme; some teachers have been warned that they will be jailed if they take sex into the classrooms while some others have been burning the AEP manual.
A conspiracy of silence
The 2006 Behavioural Surveillance Survey (BSS) found that 8.4 per cent of Indian young people are sexually active. Meanwhile the Madhya Pradesh chief minister has demanded that the AEP curriculum be replaced by classes on Indian culture. With 1.5 crores of our youngsters having sex, can cultural empowerment substitute for safety, for teaching our children how to protect their bodies? Especially when unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases are not the only byproducts of the silence surrounding sex.
One of the most shocking stories to hit the capital last week concerned a 10-year-old boy who was being sodomised in his own school by no less than three people, including a teacher. This child was tortured for months before he found the wherewithal to make a public complaint, but his is not an isolated case. A 2007 Ministry of Women and Child Development’s study adds that over 50 per cent of our children are sexually abused. In half of these cases, the abuse is perpetrated by persons in positions of trust and a majority of the children do not report it.
Sex education can overturn this ritual silence, supply our young people with the tools to report and resist abusive behaviors, provide them with a forum for negotiating their fears and feelings honestly, openly. And teachers can adapt the AEP manual to establish communication channels that best suit local conditions, putting their students at ease with subjects – such as the bodily changes induced by puberty – that they are otherwise too squeamish to discuss.
And a ticking time bomb
Two decades after the first AIDS cases were reported, it has become the fourth largest killer in the world, with five young people contracting HIV every minute – that’s 7,200 every day. In India, where 15 per cent of the HIV/AIDS patients are actually children under 15 years old, the educational system still exists in a state of denial.Much worse, many schools continue to expel or segregate children because they or their parents are HIV positive.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that sex education can save India’s young people from the AIDS epidemic. According to UNESCO, a good illustration of how responsibly the young behave when they are properly informed is that 60 per cent of them now use condoms the first time they have sex in Western Europe – a six-fold increase since the early nineties.
There is also plenty of evidence to suggest that information about contraception is effective in both delaying the first sexual intercourse and ensuring that adolescents play it safe when they do become sexually active. So it’s time we overcame our timidity about confronting our adolescents’ sexuality, and the story below shows that we have plenty of models to choose from as we make our journey out of silence.