Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Health, Population

HEALTH: No Sex Education Please – We’re Indian

Nitin Jugran Bahuguna

NEW DELHI, Aug 29 2007 (IPS) - Though adolescents are said to be at the centre of the AIDS epidemic and India has the largest number of infections in Asia, this conservative country continues to shy away from incorporating sex education in school curricula.

As many as 11 of India’s 29 state governments have either banned or are in the process of dropping sex education from school programmes. Education and health are state domains in India’s federal system.

Such a state of affairs recently prompted India’s outspoken federal minister for women and child development, Renuka Chaudhary, to remark that India seemed to her like ‘’a nation of hypocrites”.

Among major states that have banned sex education in state-run schools are western Maharashtra and Gujarat and central Madhya Pradesh. Among grounds cited were overtly explicit teaching modules and pictures that were too graphic. Private schools are continuing with lessons, but many have watered them down to avoid controversy.

Other states expecting the axe on sex education for youth are southern Kerala and Karnataka, both with high literacy rates and reputation for being progressive.

Karnataka though is experimenting with an innovative non-governmental initiative covering 350 schools and colleges. The ‘Life is Precious’ HIV/AIDS preventive education module, comprising a manual and interactive CD as a classroom aid has been designed specially by the Bangalore Medical Services Trust and Research Institute (BMST), a Bangalore-based NGO working in the areas of blood safety and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), HIV/AIDS awareness training, research, testing and counselling.

Both the manual and CD list the services needed to effectively fight the epidemic, the strategies that have worked in providing HIV/AIDS services, work sectors needed to implement the services, potential roles that youth can play and skills/training needed by youth to carry out these roles. The CD was screened at a special youth session, Aug. 19-23, at the 8th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP) held in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Apart from basic information about AIDS and awareness and prevention interventions, the CD has a list of activities for students to discuss in class. Based on improvised scenarios and stories, the students are invited to deliberate upon who is most at risk and responsible behaviour. For 17-year-old Mangala (name changed) of Sri Kongadiyappa College in Bangalore rural district, the initiative was a welcome exercise “where we came to know many unknown concepts which play a very important role in our life”. More importantly, she stresses: “We came to know that we can say ‘no’ to sex if we are not interested.”

According to Dr Latha Jagannathan, the author of the ‘Life is Precious’ programme, BMST has 15 years of experience working with youth and training teachers in Karnataka, in collaboration with the state education department. “The manual and CD have been successfully used by teachers and peer educators in 350 schools and colleges in Bangalore as well as for community outreach programmes in 2005-7.’’

The BMST material has been recommended by the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) for use in peer educators’ programmes.

Faiyaz Akhtar of the Mamta heath institute for mother and child, a Delhi-based NGO working with young people on issues of reproductive and sexual health, says the need for curriculum-based sexuality education in India is only now gaining recognition. “The ‘school AIDS education programme’ is being re-introduced as ‘adolescence education programme’, which focuses on adolescent sexuality and life skills. However, evidence about its effectiveness in the South Asian socio-cultural context and experiences that can guide its programmatic ‘roll out’ are lacking.’’

According to Akhtar the big challenge lies in developing a curriculum to meet the diverse expectations of students, parents and teachers because each group has vastly different ideas on what should be included, he observed.

The controversial sex education debate in India found mention at the ICAAP where J.V. R. Prasada Rao, regional director of joint United Nations programme against HIV and AIDS, UNAIDS, delivering an overview of the epidemic and response in the region, criticised as “highly retrograde’’ the decision of some Indian states to ban sex education.

“What surprises me more than the silence of the government of India is the lack of a strong response from civil society in India to this organised campaign,’’ said Rao, a former NACO project director. “Except for a few assertions made on e-mail and IT networks, hardly any voice of protest has been raised against these moves. Why? Very baffling indeed,” he added. Rao said there are 5.4 million people living with HIV in the Asia and Pacific region. ‘’Nearly a million new infections have occurred in the last two years, 50 percent of which are among young people.’’

According to the 2006 surveillance figures, approximately 2.5 million people were living with HIV in India in 2005. Though HIV prevalence is showing signs of decline among general population, pockets of high HIV prevalence continue to emerge in new areas. The 2006 surveillance figures also show an increase in HIV infection among several groups at higher risk of HIV infection such as injecting drug users (IDUs) and men who have sex with men.

Interestingly, Indian youth living abroad seem to face similar inhibitions and ignorance about sexual health issues. A poster presentation on gender and cultural issues that affect the sexual health of British Indian youth living in London was made at the ICAAP by a London-based NGO, Acting on Gender and Sexual Health Issues.

Authored by Ritu Mahendru of Canterbury Christ Church University, the study interviewed Indian men and women aged 18-20 brought up in Britain from age nine. The findings showed respondents living in contradiction, trying to access both cultures (Indian and British). Young men hold strong views about arranged marriages while young women face parental domestic violence whereby they do not question their status and fate. Only two of the respondents had received school sex education.

‘’These findings suggest that understanding cultural issues of the Indian community is critical to instigate an effective social agenda as well as sex education that promotes racial and gender equity and good sexual health among Indian youth in Britain”, stated Mahendru.

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