Birds, Bees, and Beyond Toward More Inclusive Sex Ed in India

Illustration by Subin Yang

This article appears in our 2016 Fall issue, Kids These Days. Subscribe today!

When Sahibya Saldanha, cofounder of the nonprofit organization Enfold Proactive Health Trust, contacted an upscale school in the city of Bangalore about conducting sex-ed sessions, it was willing—but requested that she teach the girls how to behave when they’re out in the streets so they don’t attract boys. At another school, a counselor introduced Saldanha to girls in the 7th grade by instructing them to not shame the school by asking “silly” questions. That girls were supposed to be careful, responsible, and on the lookout was a recurring theme among school officials. At both schools, Saldanha first conducted a session with the parents and teachers to instill the idea that teaching boys how to behave was even more important than teaching girls to be safe, and emphasized that both played equally important roles in the society.

In the 16 years since Saldanha cofounded Enfold, she has met many parents and educators who have either entirely shunned discussions on sex and sexuality with adolescents or have taken a wrongheaded approach; both lead to serious, negative consequences. According to a 2014 United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report, India, with a youth population of 356 million, has the world’s highest number of 10- to 24-year-olds. The report noted that countries with large youth populations faced higher instances of drug abuse, HIV/AIDS, sexual abuse, and child marriage, among other things it stressed the need to provide information and services to adequately handle those challenges. (India is one among 12 “high-burden” countries that have the most number of adolescents living with HIV. About 47 percent of girls in the country are married before the age of 18, and 22 percent have a child.)

In India, as in many nations, women continue to face barriers at home, at work, and in public life. The country’s skewed sex ratio—940 women per 1000 men—highlights the continued preference for male children; large numbers of girls are deemed unwanted even before they’re born. Women are regularly subject to sexual harassment on the streets and on public transportation; in surveys on street harassment, Indian women admitted that they have stopped going out in public, paid more to travel by private cabs, and even quit their jobs altogether to avoid facing harassment in public.

Among the recent news of brutal rapes and assaults in India was the report of a woman being dragged out of her car, thrashed, and threatened by a group of men for “wearing [a] short dress and roaming around with men late at night.” In many cases, responses to these incidents from communities and political leaders only serve to perpetuate the slanted belief at their core. The chief minister of West Bengal, for instance, publicly accused a gang-rape victim of fabricating her story, while the chief of a major political party opposed capital punishment for rape because “boys will be boys…they make mistakes.” The chief minister of Haryana, the state with the most lopsided sex ratio in the country, remarked in an interview that “If a girl is dressed decently, a boy will not look at her in the wrong way,” a sentiment that ministers in several other states have echoed, time and again.

However, there has been a critical shift in discourse. Following the horrifying 2012 gang rape of a student aboard a moving bus in Delhi, thousands took to the streets for several days of protests, demanding strict action against perpetrators and safety for women. Since then, debates and discussions about gender equality and sexual violence have moved to the forefront, and there’s been an increase in reporting crimes against women to both the police and to the media. Yet it is only the beginning of what seems like a long battle for equality, and while there’s no one solution for these problems, it’s evident that keeping adolescents in the dark about sex, consent, and sexual health only perpetuates a climate of tacit sexist judgement, not to mention heinous crimes.

Sex education isn’t simply about being able to name body parts and processes, or learning about reproduction. It’s also crucial for teaching young people about respect, boundaries, and self-advocacy. Countries that mandate comprehensive sex education see wide-ranging benefits. In the Netherlands, where students begin to receive some form of sex education in primary school, the teenage pregnancy rate is one of the lowest in the world, and nine out of ten adolescents reported using contraceptives the first time they had sex. The prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV in the country is also low. “But perhaps even more important is that effective sex education clarified and strengthened positive attitudes and values among adolescents while increasing communication with parents and other trusted adults.”

But much like the United States, India has been starkly divided on the subject of sex education. In 2005, India’s Ministry of Human Resources Development collaborated with the National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) to launch the Adolescent Education Program (AEP), a life-skills curriculum required for students in 9th through 11th grades. Content was planned around three main areas—physical and psychological development, HIV/AIDS, and drug abuse; perhaps predictably, it became a flashpoint for controversy soon after its implementation, with political leaders expressing concern about the graphic nature of the material. By 2007, 12 Indian states had banned the program. The content was revised to modify visual depictions and strike terms like “intercourse,” “condom,” and “masturbation” from the text. Today, five states continue to ban AEP, and though NACO’s annual report states that the program is being put into action in about 49,000 schools in 23 states across the country, independent organizations, researchers, and the media question its efficacy.

This article appears in our 2016 Fall issue, Kids These Days. Subscribe today!

In large part, this is because there’s no way to guarantee how and when AEP is implemented. In schools that have decided to take up the program, there has been no standardization in the content that is taught or the age group it’s taught to. Diya, 14, recalls learning about puberty, safe sex, and sexually transmitted diseases in 6th grade at her Mumbai private school—all in a single session. “They explained it very well, not in a way to scare us but to make us understand.” Contrast this with what Akshay, 21, remembers from his schooling in Bangalore. In 12th grade, his biology teacher conducted a session on abstinence as part of the program, asking students to partake only in sacred forms of sex by waiting until they were married, rather than practicing safe sex at any time before. Akshay and his classmates, aware of the traditional school of thought shared by the faculty, dismissed what they’d been taught as a big joke.

This is where independent organizations like Enfold and a similar organization, Pasand, come into the picture. They’ve created curricula for different age groups that don’t simply address reproductive and sexual health, but also emphasize on what’s known as “gender sensitization,” a process of questioning gender stereotypes, developing empathy, and prioritizing personal safety. These organizations realized that the cold, sterile information found in science textbooks wasn’t doing much for curious adolescents, so they decided to make their information engaging and participatory. Pasand, for instance, uses stories and activities—like a game of Telephone—to show how menstrual traditions often get distorted and find their meanings lost over time and geography; students create collage posters with media images to show how students identify “ideal” gender roles differently from the norm; there’s even a female anatomy dance that the organization reports is a huge crowd-pleaser.

Enfold facilitators, meanwhile, interact with adolescents by asking them about typical arguments with their parents— over tv, clothing, internet use—and using the topics to discuss physical and psychological development. They also use news stories to demonstrate gender biases and their negative consequences. Both organizations ensure that their information is updated, relevant, and interesting. “We use student-friendly definitions for anatomy and reproduction, because it doesn’t necessarily matter during their first exposure if they memorize the names of hormones, but rather that they understand their [bodies], feel good about themselves, and learn how to manage their own health and hygiene,” explains Aunna Wilson, Pasand’s Alaskan-born cofounder. And when schools were hesitant about topics like contraception and stis, they struck a bargain wherein the topics wouldn’t be included in the session—but if students asked about them, they would be answered openly and truthfully.

Wilson found stark class differences revealed in how schools welcomed Pasand’s program. She had expected private schools to be more open to sex education than public ones; as it turned out, the opposite was true. Indeed, private schools often denied the need for a sex-ed curriculum because they believed that their students wouldn’t be subject to the problems that it addressed. (Sexual abuse, for instance, is generally dismissed as a problem of the lower clases, despite studies and statistics showing the crime as prevalent across all classes.) Public-school principals, however, understand that most of their students live in slums, shanties, or villages and share constrained space with the rest of their families, frequently seeing and hearing things they might not understand. A few principals appealed to Wilson to discuss “everything” with the students, since so many drop out of school to get married before the age of 18, before ever receiving accurate information about safe sex.

Accurate, straightforward information is especially crucial since so few parents discuss sex—much less subjects like gender identity and pleasure—with Indian children and adolescents. Whether it’s a public-service announcement about AIDS on television or the sight of a transgender person on the street, parents will often refuse to answer their children’s questions, ordering them to be quiet or, in some cases, to leave the room. “For some parents, it’s not that they don’t want to discuss AIDS with their children, it’s that they don’t know where this rabbit hole of questions will go,” notes Wilson, adding that this is hardly a situation specific to Indian parents. “They never had ‘the talk’ with their own parents or teachers, [so] it can be very difficult for them to replicate something they have never experienced and to navigate the tricky waters of childhood curiosity.”

The most important takeaway from these sessions, however, has been their focus on sexuality. Saldanha took a step back from the discussion about sex education in schools to point out that an adolescent’s sexuality education, which consists of her idea about personal safety, self-worth, and body image, among other things, begins the moment she’s born. “A child has to grow up learning that she’s allowed to say no, that nobody can touch her or push her around. When a child grows up feeling unwanted, it will affect everything he/she does and the medical facts or health advice we provide tin sessions will not be enough to prevent pregnancy or AIDS,” she added. To emphasize her point, Saldanha recalls a time when, after conducting a session at a college, she was approached by two students who asked her to talk to a friend they feared was sexually indiscriminate; they were worried for her. When they met, the young woman admitted to Saldanha that she’d been sexually abused as a 5-year-old, an incident her parents had asked her to keep quiet about. She was also molested by a driver as an adolescent. “Is my body worth looking at? It’s not. My body is cheap and damaged. So it doesn’t matter what I do with it anymore,” she’d said.

Following many of Enfold’s sessions on child abuse, children have approached facilitators to tell them that they’ve been abused, too. According to a 2007 government-commissioned survey, more than 53 percent of children in India are subject to sexual abuse, and most never report it. While sensitizing parents and teachers is extremely important, it has proved to be an uphill task in the country. This makes the need for sessions with adolescents all the more important. “Many girls don’t even realize when they’re raped or abused. They’re never taught about positive body image or personal safety,” Wilson laments. “That has to change.”

As both Indian and global culture become more saturated by media, sex education is more important than ever. Today India has one of the world’s largest bases of internet users (34.8 percent of its population), and its mobile internet usage is projected to reach 371 million by mid-2016. India is now also watching more porn than ever. According to a survey by Pornhub, one of the world’s largest adult websites, Indians accounted for its third-highest traffic after the U.S. and UK. “Most parents are unaware,” Saldanha said, “They give iPads to children to keep them busy but they don’t realize how kids spend time on the device.” According to Saldanha, the problem with parents and teachers avoiding conversations about sex with adolescents is that there’s no disclaimer to what’s being consumed. “It’s like children watching superhero movies with the notion that they are real. You’d see many instances of children trying to fly out of their windows then. They don’t do so because they’re consciously told what they’re watching is only for entertainment. But parents are not sitting down and telling their children that sex is private, has its own space, and requires consent.”

Alan, 17, recalls a sex-education session that took place at his convent school in Mumbai when he was in 8th grade. “One of the students asked if it was normal to watch pornography. It was an embarrassing question, but when the facilitator said yes, we were all relieved. I learnt that it was normal for us to be curious at this age and seek out information,” he said. Akshay, however, admits that porn initially gave him some skewed impressions—that sex was always rough, for instance, and that women were okay with any and all sexual acts. It was only after he’d read many articles online that he realized that porn was nothing like real life. 

Even non-porn pop culture normalizes dangerous ideas about consent and sexual agency. For decades now, popular Bollywood films have shown their heroes chasing and stalking heroines through song sequences even after they’ve rebuffed the men’s advances. In almost all instances, the heroine finally falls in love with him, suggesting that persistence—and the violation of boundaries—is romantic and muddying the idea of consent for its adolescent audience. Young women also experience a disconnect when some of their most visible examples of womanhood are highly sexualized Bollywood stars, but they themselves are warned that leaving their homes in shorts or dresses is tantamount to asking to be sexually harassed or raped. 

It’s only recently that female leads are beginning to play strong, relatable characters in films. Most recently there was Margerita With a Straw, a critically acclaimed coming-of-age film that follows the sexual journey of a young woman with cerebral palsy. For the first time, it inspired the country to discuss the sexual needs of disabled adolescents. Saldanha, who conducts sessions with many such students often finds them asking simple questions during sessions—for instance, ‘Will boys like us?’

In lieu of discussing sex and sexuality with their parents and elders, adolescents most often seek answers online, in the vast, confusing space where authentic, helpful information sits side by side with alarmist rhetoric and fearmongering factoids. In one of the first schools in which Pasand conducted health-education sessions, a group of girls were in a panic: One of them had perused the internet to find the cause of white vaginal discharge, and somehow learned that it was related to cervical cancer. After she informed her classmates of their fate, Wilson spent a lot of time convincing the girls that discharge was nothing to worry about.

Himani, 24, received a few sex education lessons in school but felt they were very clinical in their approach, and did nothing to take away the stigma around sex. Even though she had internet access and used it to find answers to her questions, it was only when she took a five-day session with Enfold to become a sex educator herself that she felt like her understandings of gender and identity were finally clear. Akshay, too, was able to detach shame from conversations about sex and his body only after sessions with Pasand. “The Wikipedia pages couldn’t do that,” he said. As Srinidhi Raghavan, a sex educator based in the city of Hyderabad, pointed out, most schools are happy to provide students with some information about their bodies, and some even tackle the specter of abuse, but topics like pleasure and safe sex are rarely considered. This is a harder battle to fight.

“It’s important that kids watch and adapt the idea that it’s okay to say ‘penis’ ‘vagina’ and ‘sex’ without blinking an eye. Shame and guilt should only be directed towards abusers, and not on children or adolescents for their sexuality,” Wilson added. “I learned it from my own teacher, and I want these adolescents to learn and feel the same.”

Widespread comprehensive sex education can help the world’s largest youth population grow up confident about its identity, aware of the importance of gender equality, and vocal about its rights. More openness about sex and sexuality will help detach the misogyny and violence so often associated with it, and lead to healthier relationships. We can then trust the future generations of political leaders, law makers, parents and teachers to be well-equipped to address issues ranging from stis to sexual abuse to gender nonconformity. Adolescents have long suffered in silence and confusion but, as Wilson concludes, “All adolescents want to know is [that] what they’re going through is normal.” 



This article was published in Kids These Days Issue #72 | Fall 2016
by Sarita Santoshini
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Sarita Santoshini is the 2016 Bitch Media Writing Fellow in Reproductive Rights and Justice. Born in the far northeastern state of Assam in India, she spent the first 10 years of her life waking up to see monkeys and elephants in the backyard and cycling through the lanes of a former British tea garden that she called home. Now she works as an independent journalist reporting on human rights, development and other issues for Al Jazeera, The Atlantic, and TakePart, among other publications. 

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