In a milieu where schools and parents find it difficult to accept teenagers as ‘sexual’ beings, necessary and open conversations are rare. Experts weigh in
When Anamika, mum to a 15-year-old, wanted her son to know “about the birds and the bees beyond the ninth standard textbook lesson”, she approached a physician. Having taught her son about ‘good touch, bad touch’ when he was younger, she wanted this to be handled by a professional. The male doctor, in his late 50s, told her that she would be setting a bad example for him. A second, younger physician told her not to worry and that “boys have a way of figuring things out. For all you know, he already knows”. She then approached a female doctor, in her mid-30s, who asked if her husband was aware that she was “teaching these things to his son”. A fourth doctor told her that young girls get pregnant because mothers like her supported their sons in doing these things. Finally, Anamika decided to have a chat with her son by herself, and documented the experience on her Twitter account (@HiAinwe).
This, in a nutshell, is the issue with sexuality education in India. Since it has its seeds in the AIDS awareness movement, it tends to focus on what not to do instead of helping adolescents navigate relationships, establish boundaries, and understand protection.
Not just about periods
Sexuality education in India is a little hazy. While the country is obliged to provide free, compulsory, and comprehensive education to adolescents and young people — as one of the signatories to the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) — a 2008 report published in the United Nations Human Rights Council site states, “In India, private schools are free to choose whether to include sexuality education in their curricula… Those schools affiliated with the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) are required to have a component of sex education in their syllabi but such schools are a minority. Most schools do not have any form of sexuality education in their curricula.”
This seems to corroborate our findings: sexuality education is conducted in schools but is not mandatory.
Home, a good place to begin
While schools can add to the foundation, the home needs to be the basis for such conversations to begin. Even if we can’t all have a parent who is a certified sex therapist, like Gillian Anderson’s open-minded Jean Milburn, in Netflix’s British comedy, Sex Education.
Dehradun-based businessman Himmat Kohli, father to a son and a daughter, aged 21 and 17, says that his family structure “is such that we had incorporated an open forum as early as in class five. It was the perfect opportunity to normalise conversations around sex and help build a healthy attitude towards it, and when the kids went to their boarding schools [The Doon School and Mayo College, Ajmer] they were less likely to fall victim to false information”.
The onus, he feels, lies with all the stakeholders: children, parents and teachers. While Sharma adds that both parents and schools have a crucial role to play: “It’s better to get some of this information from a reliable source rather than curious minds trying to figure out on the internet or incorrect information garnered from a peer group. Secondly, discussions on gender choices, both at home and in school, normalises this and increases acceptance in society overall.”
When my 12-year-old daughter came home from her international school, with homework that entailed watching a series of videos on YouTube called The Great Sperm Race, I took it as the perfect opportunity to sit with her and become part of the journey of her sexuality education. We watched the videos (Part 1 has over a million views) and then had an open conversation about sex, with surprisingly no giggling or squirming.
‘Birds and bees’ talk in Arunachal
Most professionals agree that sex education needs to go beyond what Grover calls “safe” and “incomplete” concepts such as menstruation, reproductive organs, and STDs. To address this gap, Reckitt, the consumer-healthcare company (which owns Durex), designed The Birds and The Bees Talk, and launched it in 2020 with the support of the state governments of Manipur, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh (where the prevalence of HIV is high). “We wanted to design a programme that is children friendly, with a focus on five pillars: Awareness, Consent, Protection, Equity and Inclusion,” says Ravi Bhatnagar, Director of External Affairs and Partnerships, South Asia. The programme — which has already reached two million school children and aims to touch another three million — has an interactive curriculum, using AI-based chatbots, workshops, webinars, and age-appropriate videos to impart behavioural change communication. It is now launching a digital ecosystem and trying to establish new vehicles of communication such as audiobooks and podcasts.
Given India’s chequered history with sexuality education, has the programme encountered roadblocks? “We haven’t faced any hesitation because the curriculum is largely co-created and co-owned [they work closely with Wipro GE Healthcare, Love Matter — a global sexual and reproductive health and rights programme — state governments, parent groups, school committees, etc],” he explains. To increase acceptance, the programme also uses local festivals as a vehicle to propel discussions around sexual awareness.
Perhaps such public-private partnerships are the answer going forward. They could help bring comprehensive sexuality education to the 600-odd million youth in the country. Kohli sums it up best when he says, “India needs a curriculum which teaches respect, consent and love.”