HRD ministry diktat on limiting sex education violates children's Fundamental Right to Life

On 23 October 2016 The Telegraph reported that the Ministry of Human Resources and Development forced an expert panel to condense its recommendations on sex education as the word "sex" could offend certain segments of the society.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

The committee had made a half-page recommendation on adolescent education, mainly advocating more thorough lessons against unprotected sex. The draft suggested that adolescents be provided with "age-appropriate context intervention focused on reproductive and sexual health concerns, including HIV/AIDS and drug and substance abuse". This was removed and replaced with a one-line sentence that says, "The Adolescent Education Programme and National Population Education Programme need to be extended to all schools as early as possible."

Children are a vulnerable section of our society especially because they lack both power and information to make informed choices. Adolescents often end up taking decisions that can have serious repercussions on their lives. Some of these decision often include making decision with their sex lives.

Over 35% of the new AIDS cases in India are among people aged between the ages of 15-24. In 2007 the Ministry of Women and Child Development conducted a survey in thirteen Indian states and found that 53% of those interviewed said that they had been subjected to one or more forms of sexual abuse and over 20% said that they were subjected to severe abuse.

If this is the case then there is an urgent need to re-target and refocus on sex education, and ensure that educational material is made more widely available to children.

India is party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), 1989, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The CRC and the ICESCR, in particular, give children a wide range of rights which could be interpreted as to include the right to receive comprehensive sexuality education in order for children to protect themselves from abuse, exploitation, and undesirable life outcomes.

Article 19 of the CRC places the following obligation on States: "States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child."

Article 19 therefore places an obligation on India to have a National Adolescent Sex Education policy that helps children protect themselves from being sexual exploited. Sex education is key to ensure that children are aware of when they are being exploited so that they can report that information to an adult to take necessary protective steps. Without Comprehensive Sexuality Education it will become difficult for children to adequately identify when they are being abused.

Article 24 of the CRC places an obligation on India to protect the right to health of the child, whereas Article 24(2)(f) places the following specific obligation on India: "To develop preventive health care, guidance for parents, and family planning education and services."

Comprehensive Sexuality Education is integral to achieving preventive healthcare outcomes, especially since India has shown high rate of HIV prevalent among India's young people (15-24 age bracket). Therefore India has an obligation to ensure that it’s children are educated accordingly.

Further, Article 13 of CRC provides each child with a right to receive information (as part of a child's right to freedom of information) and only limits this right in cases where it could affect the reputation of others; national security, public order or pubic health or morals.

A combined reading of Article 13, 19 & 24 of the CRC means that Indian children have a right to receive sexual education, and therefore, the Indian government should not be trying to limit or restrict this right on grounds of "cultural sensitivity" as doing so affects the right of children to receive adequate information to safe guard their interests.

In it's 2000 General Comment on the ICESCR (Para 34), the United Nations Economic and Social Council, as part of the ICESCR's provision on a right to health, recognised that state parties should refrain from "censoring, withholding or intentionally misrepresenting health-related information, including sexual education and information, as well as from preventing people’s participation in health-related matters".

The recent action by the HRD Ministry amounts to doing just that. Limiting the spread of information in order to meet the requirements of cultural sensitivity violates the right to health enjoyed by Indian citizens under international law and also Indian law as the "right to health" is an integral part of the Fundamental Right to Life.

Talk of sex is taboo among certain communities in India, however, rather than trying to work with existing taboos, the government should try to break the taboos around sex and promote a free flow of information. This information flow is vital in tackling the spread of STDs and other infections in the country. Instead of focusing on creating a culturally sensitive sex education, India should have a sex education policy that emphasises consent and safe sex practices. Adequate and comprehensive sex education is a bulwark in defending children from things like sexual abuse and undesirable life outcome. The government’s primary focus should be the protection of children rather than the cultural sensibilities of their parents and communities.

Updated Date: Oct 26, 2016 21:43 PM

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