Put sex back in sex education, Mr Minister

'Media got it wrong again. I am against 'so called' sex education not sex education per se. Crudity, vulgarity out, values in. My fb has more.' When Union health minister tweeted this, he pretty much botched his sterling scientific credentials for good. Poll:Does India need sex education in schools?

columns Updated: Jun 29, 2014 11:39 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
Sex education,Harsh Vardhan,HIV

"Media got it wrong again. I am against “so called” sex education not sex education per se. Crudity, vulgarity out, values in. My fb has more". When Union health minister tweeted this on Friday, he pretty much botched his sterling scientific credentials for good.

His Facebook status message elaborated on his regressive worldview. “Sex education is necessary, but without vulgarisation,” he said in defence of his webpost opposing UPA’s decision to introduce the Adolescence Education Programme in 2007, which were quoted in the media. But his views remain unchanged. Even today, when Dr Vardhan talks about sex education, his sentences are peppered with conservative catch-phrases such as “packing pedagogy with values,” “culturally acceptable” and “consensually-accepted learning processes.”

All these phrases reflect a chilling medieval mindset that regards the sexual act as something shameful. Our right-wing champions of culture are convinced that it’s sex education that is fuelling rapes, paedophilia, teen pregnancies and unfinished schooling. They are wrong.

Sex education is not just about the sexual act. It’s about reproductive health, sexual health and gender rights. And it should begin at age 9, with age-appropriate information on good and bad touch told to children when they start playschool. It is about sharing with children what is acceptable and what is not.

It’s a pity India’s Union health minister doesn’t seem to know this.

Read:Didn't propose ban on sex education: Harsh Vardhan
Harsh Vardhan’s remarks on HIV/AIDS are worrying

India is a nation where 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 who got married under the age of 15 become mothers. Obviously, adolescents are having sex, it’s time they were allowed to talk about it intelligently.

So, girls as young as 13 get pregnant, with girls under 15 accounting for 30% of complicated pregnancies. Each year, roughly 4,600 women die due to abortion-related complications, contributing to 8% of all maternal deaths. That’s one avoidable death every two hours, Mr Minister.

Even married couples end up having unwanted children. Each year, 25 million babies are added to India’s 1.24 billion population mainly because only a little less than half — 48.3% — women in the reproductive age of 15-49 years use contraception. Condoms, which also protect against sexually-transmitted infections and HIV that causes AIDS, are used by just 3% people. Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, with the largest the the fastest growing populations, report contraception use below 30%.

Read:It’s more than just sex, say experts

So, there’s a conspiracy of silence and the champions of “Indian culture” continue to pretend everyone is a virgin till they get the divine sanction to have sex solely to procreate as a wedding gift. And that talking about sex and gender turns all good children into sex addicts.

Even today, talk about sex in many Indian homes remains limited to celebrity scandals, if at all. Parents would rather want their children didn’t ask and figured it out themselves. They would rather not know how. Schools, at best, show students a badly edited film on sex education that leaves them more confused than enlightened. Children then turn to equally clueless friends or look for answers on the Internet, which has become the biggest source of information — more wrong than right — on sex for teens across the world.

Some countries, however, have got 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.

Given the current government’s worrying views on sex education, parents should consider discussing sexual and reproductive issues with their children. You cannot depend on schools alone. Teachers have to struggle with classrooms of 50 or more students from diverse backgrounds and your child is unlikely to ask questions in class for fear of sounding ignorant.

How you explain things to your child depends on how curious she is. If she is asking questions, share information in the best way you can using his or 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 and relationships for life.

First Published: Jun 28, 2014 21:34 IST