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Sex Education Conundrum

Both the opponents and the proponents of the Adolescence Education Programme (sex education) share the same ideological premise of sexual restraint as a national virtue.

Sex Education Conundrum

Both the opponents and the proponents of the Adolescence Education Programme (sex education) share the same ideological premise of sexual restraint as a national virtue.

S ANANDHI

T
he union ministry of human resource development (MHRD), in collaboration with National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), has recently introduced the Adolescence Education Programme (AEP) or sex education for secondary and senior secondary school students in all state and central governmentrun schools across the country. The main aim of the AEP is to impart knowledge about HIV/AIDS to the senior students in classes IX–XI and to promote awareness about safe-sex practices and sexually transmitted diseases.

As the MHRD has claimed, the objective of AEP is “to empower the adolescent population to make informed choices and develop life skills for addressing psychological, social and health concerns”. In 2006, the AEP was introduced as a cocurricular subject to be taught for 16 hours per year in schools affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). In June 2007, it was made compulsory for all schools across the country. The AEP curriculum or the modules on sex education, jointly developed by the department of education, National Aids Control Organisation, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), include basic information about the body and the physiological changes that are experienced by the adolescent, and information about conception, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.

Preserving ‘Indian Values’

The AEP has invited strong criticism and opposition from various state governments, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led government in Kerala, even as the women’s wing of the party, the All India Democratic Women’s Association has strongly welcomed the move to introduce sex education in schools. Many of them have banned sex education in schools on the ground that it corrupts the youth and is antithetical to so-called Indian cultural values. For instance, the chief minister of Karnataka has banned the AEP in schools claiming that “sex education may be necessary in western countries but not in India, which has rich culture”.

Economic and Political Weekly August 18, 2007 The government of Maharashtra has decided to ban sex education not only in state-run schools but also in schools that come under the CBSE. The ban was because sex education offends “Indian values”. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)led Madhya Pradesh government has gone a step further by ordering replacement of sex education in schools with yoga classes and teaching of “Indian traditions” and “values”.

Not surprisingly, the ban against sex education in schools in various states is the result of agitations or threats of agitation by various fundamentalists groups of different ideological hues. The issue has paradoxically provoked organisations espousing Hindutva such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh(RSS) and the BJP, Islamic organisations like the Students Islamic Organisation (SIO) and left-wing organisations like the All India Democratic Students’ Organisation (AIDSO), affliated to the Socialist Unity Centre of India, to speak the same language. Launching a series of protests against the introduction of sex education in Orissa, an AIDSO leader has claimed, “Adolescent sex education will simply cause innocent children to be curious about sexual matters and it will affect their morale.” The views of Dinanath Batra, secretary of the RSS-affiliated Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, was not different. Writing in the RSS mouthpiece, the Organiser, he reasoned, “[t]he concept of educating youngsters about the graphic details of sexual intercourse is nothing short of corrupting impressionable young minds. The lurid details contained in the curriculum of sex education are absolutely vulgar and shocking and promote liberal sexual behaviour before marriage and adulthood among students.”

The Hindu fundamentalists have bolstered their claim to nationalism by arguing that sex education in schools not only stands against “Indian culture and moral values” but also promotes western values. While opposing the efforts of the Tamil Nadu government to introduce sex education in state-run schools, L Ganesan, president of the Tamil Nadu unit of the BJP, warned the government that it would harm the country’s culture and described it as “a conspiracy of the US to bring in degraded values under the guise of AIDS awareness”. Similarly, Murali Manohar Joshi of the BJP argues that the attempt to impart sex education is a ploy of the multinational companies that are keen on promoting the sale of condoms and other sex devices.

In a country where Valentine’s Day celebrations and vibrating condoms are viewed as capable of unsettling the nation, there is no novelty in these arguments. One is only too familiar with them. But their efficacy in stalling sex education in schools in several states is a matter for worry.

Restraining Sexuality

The proponents of sex education have advanced an array of arguments in defence of introducing AEP in schools. Expressing deep concern about the incidence of HIV/ AIDS victims in India, rise in child sexual abuse, the increasing rate of pregnancy among adolescents, and the possibility of victims of sexual abuse becoming perpetrators due to lack of information or misinformation about sexual health among the adolescents, they argue that sex education can counter these problems. Many of these arguments are indeed valid. But the overall approach of the state in introducing sex education in schools is not without its share of problems.

First of all, sex education in schools is primarily linked to HIV/AIDS control. The NACO which is collaborating with the government in introducing sex education in schools, has claimed that one-third of the HIV/AIDS virus carriers in India are youth whose abundant sexual permissiveness and over all attitudes to sex needed urgent reform. Similarly, making a connection between sex education and prevention of HIV/AIDS among adolescents, the minister of state for women and child development, Renuka Chaudhary, has claimed, “sex education is no less than insurance for your child.”

A similarity between the earlier population control programmes and AEP is hard to miss. The population control programmes represented the bodies of the poor as oversexed, limitlessly procreative, and hence a national problem. We find this line of argument emanating in the sex manuals written in the 1930s and 1940s by Indians like N S Phadke, A P Pillay, and M N Ganesha Iyer and articulated in the National Health Policy of the government of India (1978) and the National Population Education Project (1980). In other words, the discourse of population control constructs national health as contingent upon the sexual reform of the poor. In AEP, adolescents have been substituted in the place of the poor in the name of HIV/AIDS control. Their bodies are marked, in the new discourse, by reckless permissive sexual abundance. To preserve and enhance the nation’s health, their bodies have to be disciplined.

The implication of such an argument is not difficult to unravel. Like the critiques of the sex education in schools, the state too, while promoting sex education, treats restrained sexuality as necessary for a healthy nation. Thus both the critiques and defenders of the AEP seem to share the same ideological premise of sexual restraint as a national virtue. As the AEP states its objective, it aims at “scientific

Economic and Political Weekly August 18, 2007

instruction to enable the learners (here the school attending adolescents) to grasp the physiological facts that would eventually take care of problems of sexual desire and fantasy, etc, wrongly triggered by media ‘misinformation’.”

Second, the AEP conceptualises sex and sexuality as bounded by physiological facts and human biology. Its claim to “scientific instruction” based on information about the human body and the physiological changes experienced by the adolescent, conception, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases, places issues of sexuality outside the realm of the social. Within this discourse of “scientific sexuality” that assimilates issues of sexuality to sexual “hygiene”, there is very little room for educating adolescents about sex, sexuality and sexual health as embedded in relations of power. Given this, it is debatable how far the AEP will help in combating child sexual abuse and related problems.

EPW

Email: anandhister@gmail.com

Economic and Political Weekly August 18, 2007

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