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

SOUTH ASIA: Youth Demand Sex Education in Schools

Zofeen Ebrahim

HYDERABAD, India, Oct 31 2007 (IPS) - Sahinaz Khatun, who is preparing for her school finals in a village in West Bengal state, has for the last two years kept condoms (and birth control pills) at her home and thinks nothing of discussing subjects like menstruation hygiene and masturbation with other adolescents.

Khatun is among the 200 young people attending the 4th Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights (APCRSH) demanding the right to sex education.

“Talking about sexual and reproductive health (SRH) is not going to make us errant or licentious,” she said, adding that there are people in her community who still feel this is not the right thing for a young unmarried woman to be doing. “In some ways they are right,” she says. “But then schools and parents have absolved their responsibility.”

She spoke vociferously against the ban on sex education recently imposed by 12 Indian state governments in their schools.

At the conclusion of the three-day conference, on Wednesday, the fairly large youth group circulated an open letter to the governments of the Asia-Pacific region stating: “Young people face significant barriers to sexual and reproductive information, resources and services and need age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education that is evidence-based and non-judgemental.”

Comprehensive sexuality education “does not corrupt young minds”, said the letter, but “lack of information leads young people to access false, incomplete and harmful information.”

The Delhi-based Young Parliamentarians Foundation has demanded that youth be involved in the review of the contents of the sex education curriculum. A parliamentary committee is currently seeking opinion across the country on whether or not sex education should be included in the school curriculum. Ironically, while governments have resisted introduction of sex education, they remain silent on prevalent issues of child marriage and child sexual abuse, pointed out Supriya Pillai, one of the youth representatives.

“Information on their bodies and what constituted a good and bad touch would go a long way in helping the adolescents in protecting themselves,” she said.

Commenting on prevalent attitudes to sex education, Gillian Greer, director-general of the International Planned Parenthood Foundation, said it was like saying that ‘’seat belts cause accidents”.

And for this very reason, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has recently set up a youth advisory panel as well as initiated an internship programme for the young people and included youth and gender as a cross cutting theme in all their programmes.

Qadeer Baig, country representative, World Population Foundation (WPF), Pakistan, feels the introduction of sex education in the school curriculum in Pakistani schools would meet with similar, if not more, resistance. “It won’t happen in either your lifetime or mine,’’ he said.

Pakistan currently has a large cohort of young population (10-24 years), making up 60 percent of its population.

And yet WPF has added SRH in its life skills programme and has, according to Baig, “trained some 35,000 students, 621 teachers from over 300 schools in six districts of Pakistan from all the four provinces in the last three years.” Keeping the mindset of right-wing fundamentalists and politicians in mind, the WPF camouflaged SRH in its life skills programme.

Learning about the various country programmes shared during the conference, it came as a surprise to Baig “that we’re ahead of most in South Asia and Pacific, even in terms of the geographical spread. Even Cambodia and Indonesia are faring well in terms of introduction of sex education in their school curriculum’’.

“We also involved the government except that instead of working from the top and going to the federal government, which would have meant inordinate delays what with the red-tapism and a general apathy towards youth-related programmes, we approached government at the provincial and district levels and signed memoranda of understanding with each government,” said Cyma Ashraf, one of the programme managers.

So as to ensure that the curriculum was not in conflict with the cultural and religious values, the WPF approached all the stakeholders, including government, religious scholars and academicians to make it plausible.

“We don’t talk about how to perform the actual act, but of course talk about problems of adolescence, body changes, even homosexuality and abortion. These are facts of life and for far too long, we’ve taken an oyster-like stance, but with sex coming into our very living rooms via the Internet and the satellite, we cannot keep the onslaught from affecting the children. It’s best we provide them with accurate and correct information.” said Baig. And so WPF tells all, under harmless guise of “knowledge, attitude and skills for the young people to make healthy choices in their lives.”

“Our strength lies in the voluntary involvement of school heads and teachers in the programme. Even parents have been forthcoming and participating,” although he confessed there have been reservations and it has not been a smooth sailing. He warned that to avoid both political and religious backlash “there is a definite need to mould the western models that we adopt and reshape it to adhere to the cultural and religious nuances.”

“We are currently planning to replicate and expand our programme to include out-of-school, the most at risk adolescents and madrassa (religious schools) youth,” said Ashraf. “The last one has not been without its share of travails as we have had to tread very carefully so as not to jeopardise the progamme,” she added. There are about 50,000 madrassas all over Pakistan with about one million students on their rolls.

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