The last 20 years have seen a rise in concerns and research regarding Adolescent Sexual And Reproductive Health (ASRH) in India. While previously deemed unnecessary, today, there is a growing concern and need for the same. In this article, I locate ASRH education in empirical research, government, politics, and myths.
While I thoroughly enjoyed growing up with modern and liberal values at a private school in New Delhi, the school’s liberal culture did not incorporate education about sexual and reproductive health (SRH). In fact, in the 21st century, schools still place issues concerning sexual health and well-being under the rug.
Lacuna of knowledge about SRH
In my review of the literature, adolescents report a lack of awareness and need for sex education. In Cochin, students were asked to submit queries regarding SRH and fill a pre-designed questionnaire in seven private co-educational schools. The most common themes recorded through the student’s queries were masturbation, sex, and sexuality. It was revealed that more than 50% of adolescents learned about sex and sexuality from their peers. While 32% of girls were not aware of menstruation, only 8% were aware of menstrual hygiene. For boys, peers were found to be influential in masturbation, reading or viewing pornography, consuming alcohol, and smoking. Thus, the magnitude of peer influence and lack of awareness among students calls for urgent interventions for sexual health and well being.
Researchers conducted a study in 2 secondary schools of South Delhi to understand awareness about STDs, HIV/AIDS, and contraception among 251 girls. While 49% believed condoms should not be available to youth, 30% of students considered HIV/AIDS could be cured. Astonishingly, 41% of students were confused about whether the contraceptive pill could protect against HIV infection and 32% thought it should only be taken by married women. Through other studies across the subcontinent, researchers have found addressing the following topics with adolescents leads to increase in awareness and less risky behavior; knowledge about reproductive processes, gender in sexual and reproductive health, values of consent, reproductive age, extramarital sexual engagement, causes and prevention for sexually transmitted disease (STDs), contraceptive use for both genders, open discussions about sexuality, child safety rules, etc.
Government policy rejected by States
While researchers campaign for curriculum changes to incorporate sex education and well-being, it is important to situate this within the political context. In 2007, the National Education Ministry and National AIDS Control Organisation introduced a new curriculum for 15-17-year-olds in state-run schools. Since education is a state subject, twenty states in India decided not to incorporate this curriculum for sex education. In fact, when Ministers from 2 states in the country banned sex education they claimed, “it will corrupt Indian values”. They instead emphasized the need for teaching yoga and Indian values in school.
The National AIDS Control Organisation has since been engaged in a battle with politics to control the HIV epidemic. In India, 2017, HIV prevalence among adults (aged 15-49) was an estimated 0.2% i.e. 2.1 million people. Thus, while politicians are battling sex education due to their value system, people are suffering from HIV due to a lack of education about prevention and treatment. It is thus important to include sex education into school curriculums and dismantle the myths associated with it.
Myth about sex education
Myth: Sex Education will lead to wrong ideas in the youth’s mind and encourage them to engage in sexual behavior
In India, a country with a rising number of rape cases and reports of domestic violence, it is imperative to teach adolescents about SRH. With the increased usage of streaming websites and search engines such as Hotstar, Netflix, youth today have access to all the information they need. Researchers have found peers and the internet are the main sources of information for adolescents regarding SRH. However, there is little control over what information is consumed by adolescents in this manner. Thus, introducing reproductive health and sexuality in school curriculums will help adolescents develop better physical, social, emotional, and mental well-being. Life skills training including values of consent, knowledge about contraceptives, rights of minors will help in the overall development of adolescents and not encourage sexual activity.
At a liberal arts college in Haryana, I was fortunate to have a campus life where students were open to exploring topics of sexuality, sex, and gender. In fact, the student community campaigned to have a condom dispenser installed in our residence halls. I bring the example, to elucidate how this dispenser was not an advertisement for students to engage in sexual activity, but a message that if one chooses to engage in sexual activity, they must have the resources to make responsible choices. Open communication and conversation in this manner open doors to accurate information and safe practices for adolescents.
Resources for sex education
By shying away from addressing SRH, teachers and parents teach their children that it is a topic of shame and should be kept private. However, we saw how interventions in Surat, Delhi, and Bombay involving school-based adolescent health led to a significant increase in awareness. The interventions show that this awareness can lead to the development of safe sex practices and knowledge of other reproductive processes such as menarche. Thus, it is imperative to train facilitators, teachers, and parents who can come together and influence adolescents about SRH and control the HIV epidemic among other concerns.