Parents, principals and politicians: Let’s talk about sex (ed)

A volunteer* led a classroom lesson on the topic of sex with girls at a private school. After she finished, she opened the floor to questions. Many students raised their hands and asked about the abortion procedures they had each recently undergone. The girls had undertaken the medical procedures without parental consent and had queries.

Olivia Wicki August 13, 2015 11:30:11 IST
Parents, principals and politicians: Let’s talk about sex (ed)

At a private school, a volunteer* led a classroom full of girls through a lesson on the topic of sex. After she finished, she opened the floor to questions. Many students raised their hands and asked about the abortion procedures they had each recently undergone. The girls had opted for the medical procedures without parental consent and had queries.

The volunteer, though severely startled by this discovery, answered their questions. At the after-school meeting with the school principal, she decided not to mention this classroom moment.

In India, family chats can be extinguished with a sex query. Many parents, having not received reproductive health education themselves, fear the unknown and consequently, do not venture into dialogue.

“I think now what’s happening is that parents themselves have a lack of sex education…they don’t like to talk about it” said gynaecologist and India’s most popular sex columnist, Dr. Mahinder Watsa. Progress on sex-education in rural India, in particular, remains veiled and is yet to be investigated, he said.

India’s urban population may loudly argue otherwise. I recently attended a sex-education panel with a parent-focused start-up in Mumbai where the discussion flowed with courageous and modern ease. A majority of attendees at this panel were educated, young and urban women.

While India’s metropolises have seen a surge in Indian and foreign initiatives covering this conversation, the open attitude towards sex education remains a minority's mindset.

Parents and principals: the hierarchies of sex-ed suppression

Angana Prasad, a manager at the non-governmental organization Project KHEL (Kids Holistic Education & Life skills) which operates throughout India, organizes sessions using a method common among NGOs addressing sexual health and sexuality. Students volunteer questions and issues they want to address in an environment without teachers and any authority figures. This creates a stress-free environment and removes any potential reluctance parental presence can impose.

“We have a very free-flowing, non-judgmental discussion session in which we do not allow any school teacher or any authority to be present so that the children are able to ask us questions without any inhibition” said Prasad. “One reason why I have been able to connect with my target [audience] very well is that I’ve been very open about my experiences.”

Prasad said that numerous school principals, who found topics such as masturbation inappropriate to discuss with children, are deeply concerned about parents complaining about sex education and for this reason, have not accepted KHEL's programs.

“Parents don’t know how much exposure is 'ok' exposure. It becomes an embarrassing education. They do prefer outsourcing it,” said Anvita Madan-Bahel, a counselling psychologist and co-founder of the NGO, Seeds of Awareness, which offers comprehensive sexual health programs for schools.

Dr. Watsa explained that the outsourced sex-education offered at progressive schools often opposes the conservative discussion at home. This lack of communication between parents and educators on the subject of sex-education creates a considerable conflict. This isn't limited to the home environment. In his vast experience as a medical doctor, Dr. Watsa said he knows of doctors who don't answer questions and gyneecologists who undertake medical procedures while omitting relevant information to the patient if it concerns sexual matters.

Grace, who asked her real name not be used in this report, founded a NGO that distributes reproductive health education. She said that when her students enter a gynaecologist's office, the first question they are asked is, "Are you a virgin?" That, Grace says, is the extent to which sex is discussed in the doctor’s office before proceeding with diagnostic measures.

In Grace's experience, parents and mothers often come to their children's school's sex education course, because they themselves wanted to learn about sex and about reproductive health. “We've worked with a lot of older women, mothers even grandmothers, who don’t understand that below the waist there are three holes”, said Grace.

[big-image title="Reuters" src="http://www.firstpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Sex-education-and-India-1.jpg" ]

Where do Indian youths turn to when they don't have answers? The internet.

After tracking questions received from boys in classroom sessions, Grace’s organization found that up to 75 percent of the questions from eighth standard boys were about pornography.

It's no surprise that tech-savvy youths turn to the internet for answers when they aren't forthcoming from adult figures. However, Dr. Watsa pointed out that often, they cannot interpret the information  correctly and this further endangers their decision-making.

Nevertheless, the Internet's usefulness as a tool for raising awareness and disseminating sex education should not be underestimated.

Curious youngsters navigating the web may stumble upon the YouTube video titled "EIC: Sex-education in India", which has had over 3 million hits.  The video by East India Comedy, one of India's most prominent comedy companies, was put up in 2014 and was inspired by the former Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan’s controversial statement that sex-education needed to be banned from all schools.

Sapan Verma is a comedian with EIC and wrote the video's script. He came up with the idea of a video because he felt that such an issue required more than just a quick, on-stage joke.

“The response was insane because, this video is the most viral video we have made so far," said Verma. "It’s controversial, it’s funny, it’s got somewhat of an international appeal to it. At the same time a lot of people in India could relate to the fact that professors were shy about talking about these things”

All the while, Verma believes that the medium of online comedy can offer youth the space to ask questions and address important issues. “It puts across your point in a funny way and people are willing to hear it” said Verma.

Madan-Bahel, a Seeds of Awareness volunteer, said that videos, particularly with Bollywood actors, are incorporated into their sex-education sessions. When addressing difficult topics, protagonists and characters can be used as devices, while pop culture and the internet can help kick-start the sex-education conversation.

“There have been some really amazing movies that have come out on gay relationships, so that’s an easier conversation to have when you show a lot of [films] with relationships in a Bollywood context” said Madan- Bahel.

Preserving Indian values and Indian culture

Since the standard objection to sex education tends to be that it's a Western imposition, Grace's organisation has created and organised a “culturally sensitive” module and refrains from calling it “sex education”. Instead, it's referred to as “adolescent health education”.

Of course, there are subtleties at play here that could potentially hold back sex education, namely the difference between health and sexuality education. But for most experts, the two topics remain so intertwined that it’s not possible to differentiate them.

Dr. Prakash Kothari, former advisor to the World Association for Sexual Health and former professor of the department of sexual medicine at King Edward Memorial Hospital, said that sexual education has historically been an integral part of Indian culture and religions. He pointed to the ever-popular Kama Sutra as well as the importance accorded in ancient India to sex education during adolescence. When Dr. Kothari speaks with patients, he uses religion as a focal point. He said he calls upon the Holy Book of Gita, the Law of Krishna and the Quran as resources which laud an open conversation concerning sexuality.

And for anyone who says that sex-education may infringe on Indian culture, Kothari exhorts them to look at the "temple walls" — or religious art of the Hindu tradition — to see how sex, its depiction, as well as dissemination of its depiction, has always been a part of the Indian way of life.

Dr. Watsa said many religious leaders are interested in learning more about sexuality, sex education, and how to impart advice on these subjects. They agree that there is need to implement a program that will foster a discussion or offer advice surrounding sex education.

Maintaining the momentum of conversation

“This country is facing two major problems: population explosion and HIV/AIDS," said Dr. Kothari. "So for the country at large to prosper, people need to provide sex education. Unless you give proper sex education, you cannot control these problems.”

At the panel I attended, the moderator, a young mother, started the discussion with a short, but poignant story. She said that in the morning, when she was getting ready to leave for this event, her kids asked her where she was going. She hesitated at first. But then, she ignored her discomfort and told them that she was attending an event about sex education. She gave her kids an honest answer in the hopes of opening up a life-long conversation.

*Volunteer unnamed to protect identity

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