Nervous giggles, shy smiles and curious eyes fill up the room. A 15-year-old rushes to bolt the door. Her friend ensures all windows are shut. A discussion on adolescent health is about to begin in a community centre in a slum in Sarita Vihar, New Delhi. In a group of 20 adolescent girls, only a few readily share all that they know and have been taught — at school, by their families and by peers. The others dare not speak but listen keenly.
Barring the discussion that is underway, issues related to their body have found a brief mention in biology class at school when the chapter on reproductive health was taught. “Jab yoni aur ling milte hain, usko sharirik sambandh kehte hain (Sexual intercourse occurs when the male and female genitals meet),” informs Anita*, a Class 8 student. The others nod but are full of unanswered questions. “There was also a class on menstruation and reproduction in which we played games,” adds Anita. Although menstruation is a subject that the women in the family talk about, sex isn’t. “Only a husband has the right over our body,” they are told.
In the absence of any reliable source of information, they turn to newly-wed women in the household, while some girls even admit to watching late night shows on Discovery channel to ‘educate’ themselves. Though most girls in the community don’t have access to mobile phones, the boys do. For them, any information about sex is just a click away. Many admitted to watching porn to know “how it’s done”.
When two 16-year-olds nudge Neha*, 18, to tell more about her experience, the conversation is no longer about just sex. Neha flinches. Married about three weeks ago, she is disgusted at the thought of sex. “It’s a terrifying experience. My husband forces himself on me every night. I just want him to stop,” she whispers. When the facilitator remarks that she could say no, the other girls encourage her, but she nods in dismay. Then a 13-year-old asks, “But what do I do with that tailor who always squeezes the measurement tape at my bust? And the doctor who feels me up during a check-up?” Many others share her experience. It’s something that “just happens”.
Most children in the neighbourhood have attended the same government school, but classes on the subject have been irregular. Some batches have had them, the others haven’t. There was no room to ask questions.
Recently, Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan sparked off a row when he said that the thrust of the AIDS campaign should not only be on the use of condoms but also on fidelity. His explanation? “This sends the wrong message that you can have any kind of illicit sexual relationship, but as long as you are using a condom, it’s fine.” Although the minster was quick to recant his statement, and issued a clarification stating that he was not against sex education but the “vulgarisation” of it, he re-opened a debate that has gone on for over two decades in the country. The subject was last debated in 2007, when the Adolescent Education Programme (AEP), promoted by the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) and the Ministry of Human Resource Development, was introduced in schools across the country. It had taken 12 long years of deliberation at the government level before it was introduced.
The idea of the programme was to integrate life skills development and education with the process of growing up, prevention of HIV/AIDS and substance abuse. The programme addressed issues like physical and psychological development (body image and sex drive), social development (changing relations: parents, peer groups, opposite sex, gender roles), and the concepts of gender and sexuality, besides the stereotypes and myths surrounding it.
However, soon objections were raised on the ground that the programme would corrupt the youth and lead to promiscuity and irresponsible sexual behaviour. “‘Adolescent Education Programme’ was a clever euphemism, while its real objective was to impart sex education to school children and promote promiscuity,” said a 2009 Rajya Sabha Committee report, following which topics like intercourse, condoms or safe sex were dropped from the programme.
But those are the very issues that adolescents need to know about. “Most children start dating in high school and don’t understand what’s going on,” says 14-year-old Samiha*, a Class 9 student who goes to a leading private school in New Delhi. “If you are attracted to someone, how far do you go with them? We can’t approach our parents or teachers with these questions.” Although condoms, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or intercourse were never discussed in Samiha’s school, she learnt about condoms through the Internet and she thought the information had come in handy while working on a biology assignment on ‘How we fall ill’. Samiha had been asked to write the chapter on STDs. “Use a condom” was the only precaution she mentioned in the section on how to avoid STDs. Her teacher returned her assignment with a stern expression, which left her puzzled. She was just glad that she wasn’t punished. In Class 8, a classmate of hers had been asked to leave the class after he asked his biology teacher how the sperm reached the ovum.
In the absence of a standard curriculum for sex education, some private schools have in-house counsellors, while others call in experts to address these issues from time to time. “Children are unable to cope with emotional and physical changes. They need age-appropriate modules along with the existing modules on life skill education that include anger management, time management, etc. This would help us in dealing with adolescents better,” says Priyanka Tripathi, who works as a counsellor at a private school.
However, psychiatrist Harish Shetty feels that the curriculum itself is a minor issue, the bigger issue concerns the way facilitators deal with children’s questions. “If a child asks a question in a titillating manner, it is only an expression of his/her curiosity and anxiety. The facilitator should find a way to talk to the child as the right information will only empower him/her,” says Shetty, who also conducts workshops on emotional health with an emphasis on sexuality in schools and colleges across the country.
“I kissed my girlfriend. Should I feel guilty about it?”, “My breasts/penis is too small. What can I do about it?”, “I’m in love with a boy who wants to have sex but I don’t. Will he leave me?”, “I have an uncle who holds me tight and I hate it. Who do I talk to?” — Shetty routinely deals with such questions. “Sometimes sex education is converted into education about sexual organs, but it’s actually health education. It needs to be imparted no matter how high or low the rate of HIV/AIDS in a country is. Even as a child is taught to love, care and share, he/she also learns about the functioning of sexual organs. But that’s not all there is to it. Adolescents are hassled by emotions and hormones. They need help in dealing with their emotions and channelising their libido through healthy interaction. It is part of the education that happens from the womb to the tomb, and its goal is to help kids understand, accept, respect and protect their bodies against abuse,” he says.
In 2007, the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development conducted a survey on child sexual abuse across 13 states, the largest study of its kind undertaken anywhere in the world. According to the survey report, 53 percent of the children in India are survivors of child sexual abuse. Given the pervasive nature of child sexual abuse, there is an increasing demand from schools for workshops on preventing and protecting children from abuse. “Earlier, schools were terrified of broaching the subject, but today we are being asked to develop modules on the subject at the pre-primary, primary and secondary level,” says Nishit Kumar of Childline, an ngo that works on protecting children from abuse.
The focus of the programme is on helping adolescents cope with the social set-up while undergoing emotional and bodily changes. “Many parents, too, are realising the need to talk about sexuality, but are uncomfortable with it,” says Suchismita Bose, director of The Foundation, another ngo that works against child sexual abuse. As a rule, the organisation first sensitises the parents.
For Arnab*, 17, although most of the learning happened over the Internet, it was his parents’ support that helped him tide through the most difficult phase of his life. “I had crushes on girls all my life, but when I was in Class 6, I started noticing the boys,” he recounts. This led to a lot of turmoil until a counsellor that his family knew helped him understand what was going on. “My parents were open to talking about these things, but I wasn’t. Yet knowing that they would understand me was reassuring,” he says.
In Class 9, he told his friends about his sexual orientation and last year, his parents too. Coming out has been the biggest relief for him. “Being secretive about my sexual orientation made me feel like I was living a half-truth, as if there was something wrong in me,” he says.
Arnab’s father works in the education sector and feels that children are looking for information, not instruction. “In the sea of information and misinformation that children can get lost in, we need a mechanism to guide them gently,” he says.
Tripathi says that parents often approach psychiatrists and counsellors when they find their child masturbating or having sex. “Our generation didn’t have these issues. What is wrong with kids these days?” some parents complain. Most of the children TEHELKA met claimed to know somebody or the other who had had sex. A study conducted by the NGO Population Council reveals that 15 percent of the young adults in India have had sex before marriage. National Crime Records Bureau data for 2013 shows a 64.5 percent spike in suicides triggered by teen pregnancies.
Experts point out an alarming lack of awareness about safety. Delhi-based gynaecologist Dr Neena Bahl and Mumbai-based gynaecologist and former vice-president of the Federation of Obstetrics and Gynaecological Societies of India, Dhuru Shah, both agree that a growing number of women mistake emergency contraceptives to be a regular method of contraception. No doubt, the availability of emergency contraception is a boon for women, but their regular use can be dangerous. “Most women come in for a check-up only after they experience irregularities in their cycle. I would recommend counselling before using emergency contraceptives,” says Bahl. Shah says that it can mess up the menstrual cycle and sometimes have other adverse effects too.
Following Dr Harsh Vardhan’s controversial comment, NACO decided to realign its strategy to include messages related to ‘fidelity’ and ‘morality’. VK Subburaj, Secretary (NACO) in the Ministry of Health, told TEHELKA, “College students need to be warned against pre-marital sex. Sex education should not be vulgar. Sex is not just about pleasure; it has its dangers too. And the vulgar kind of sex education only increases the dangers. Safe sex is having sex with one partner.” He added that the module introduced by the Tamil Nadu State AIDS Control Society could be a model for the whole country.
But the Tamil Nadu model also has its critics among health rights activists in the state, who say it avoids important issues. In a 10-hour module titled ‘Celebrating Life’, adolescents are told about preventing HIV/AIDS and are encouraged to organise blood donation camps. The entire thrust is on abstinence, and no information is provided on how to avoid STDs and pregnancy. Moreover, the module is based on a peer-to-peer approach, which can lead to adolescents getting trapped in a web of misinformation through their friends.
“I understand the dangers of pre-marital sex, but why is it called mooh kala kar dena (getting one’s face blackened)? Why is virginity such a big deal?” asks Rashi*, 15, expressing her angst against the prejudice she sees around her.
The answers may be complex and layered, but there is always a way to address the questions. All it takes is sensitivity and open-mindedness. Take John and Urmila Samson, who do not shy away from discussing sex and sexuality with their three children. They say they listen to what their children have to say, rather than forcing their opinions on them.
It wasn’t easy. Urmila was initially uncomfortable talking about such issues, but John wasn’t. “If children’s anxieties about growing up are suppressed, they end up spending a lot of time and energy agonising over their problems and trying to defend themselves. But if the anxieties are addressed in conversations, a child could channelise his/her energies into pursuing something constructive, of their choice,” says John. Such open conversation has helped their children develop their own sensibilities on the subject. For instance, while jokes surrounding toilet habits and sex abound among their peers, they react to it without shame as they would to any other natural functions.
In the era of information technology, where sex is commercialised, insulating children from the idea of sex would only mean expecting them to be blind to the world around them. “We need to enable children to understand that they must take responsibility for their actions,” says psychiatrist Shetty. Perhaps that could be the lesson for a generation that is burdened by its sexuality.