Ananth Krishnan

There is a crying need for sex education programmes, experts say on the basis of new study findings

55,000 people from 1.7 lakh households surveyed

13% of men, 26% of women had received education

MUMBAI: A new study has found that while pre-marital sex is rising among youth in rural India where it exceeds rates in the urban areas, there is a persisting lack of awareness of even the basic facts of sexual health. Government health programmes need to address this anomaly, health experts warn.

A survey of 55,000 women and men aged 15-29 from 1.7 lakh households in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Jharkhand conducted by the by the Mumbai-based public health institute, the International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS), found that a substantial number of youth had inadequate knowledge about safe sex and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

The IIPS this week released its survey results for Maharashtra, where 7,570 youth from 23,000 households were interviewed. Only one in seven youth had heard of STIs other than HIV-AIDS. Only 13 per cent of young men and 26 per cent of women had received any form of sex education from schools or health programmes. And only two in five were aware that a woman could get pregnant the very first time. A quarter of women surveyed said their pregnancies were mistimed or unwanted at the time.

The survey found that while access to sex education was far less in rural areas, rural youth were twice as likely as urban youth to have had pre-marital sex: 21 per cent of young men and 4 per cent of young women in rural areas said they had had pre-marital sex, as opposed to11 per cent and 2 per cent respectively in cities.

The study highlights the need for sexual health education programmes in schools, Shireen Jejeebhoy, a senior associate at the Population Council, said. Unsafe sex is virtually universal. Youth are poorly informed about the most basic of facts. “We are very concerned that while rural and urban youth are having unsafe sex, our programmes are still discussing whether or not we should include sex education in the curriculum,” she said.

The findings should convince the authorities that pre-marital sex was not just a western phenomenon and that sex education programmes were urgently needed, Ms. Jejeebhoy said.

The survey found that 90 per cent of the respondents desired more information about sexual health but did not know where they could find it. Most of them favoured receiving sex education from their school teachers, rather than their parents or doctors.

Usha Ram of the IIPS said recent health initiatives by the government to improve awareness of sexual health were not achieving the desired results on the ground. In 2005, the National Rural Health Mission for the first time identified the need to establish adolescent-friendly health clinics at the district level, she said. But especially in rural areas, there is still a cultural taboo attached to issues of sexual health. An unmarried youth who walks into a clinic and asks for a condom faces resistance. There is a need to orient healthcare providers to be more sensitive, and to sensitise both teachers and parents, it was felt.

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