India needs comprehensive sexuality education

Understanding sexual consent is important not only to learn about violation and abuse, but also to maintain healthy relationships

August 29, 2023 12:15 am | Updated 07:34 am IST

Photo used for representation purpose only.

Photo used for representation purpose only.

Earlier this month, a man and his minor son were arrested for sexually abusing a five-year-old girl, who was related to them, over six months. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 51,863 cases were reported under The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act in 2021; of them, 33,348 or 64% were of sexual assault. How do we prevent child abuse? An effective approach would be comprehensive sexuality education, which, according to the United Nations (UN), is a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality.

Several State governments and certain sections of society in India have adopted an ostrich-like approach to comprehensive sexuality education. Claiming that it sexualises children, they have either watered down the existing programmes or withdrawn them on the grounds that they violate “Indian values”. Traditional values are often shaped by patriarchal and hierarchical social structures. Mass media often propagates such values. All this negatively affects young adults of all genders.

Understanding consent

In the context of POCSO cases, the Madras, Delhi, and Meghalaya High Courts along with the Chief Justice of India have highlighted the frequent criminalisation of consensual adolescent relationships and have asked the government to consider reducing the age of consent. Understanding sexual consent is important not only to learn about violation and abuse, but also to maintain healthy relationships. But are Indian teenagers and even young adults aware of what sexual consent means? A study by the dating app Tinder showed that more than 64% of young Mumbaikars were hesitant to give consent, ask for it, and to withdraw it when dating someone. This is worrying.

While the concept of sexual consent is evolving through criminal jurisprudence, the term itself may have been borrowed from English or other Western languages. While Sir Richard Burton’s translation of The Kama Sutra has a short discussion on consensual sexual pleasure, discussions around the concept have been traditionally absent. With the non-English language speaking population becoming substantial, an explicit creation of vocabulary in regional languages to discuss the concept of sexual consent and its nuances is urgently required.

NCRB data show that it is necessary for schools to impart comprehensive sexuality education not only to children, but also to parents and caregivers. Data show that both male and female children are victims of sexual abuse.

Well-being and dignity

As the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) says, “the right of access to comprehensive sexuality education is grounded in fundamental human rights and is a means to empower young people to protect their health, well-being and dignity”. The UN global guidance recommends starting comprehensive sexuality education from the age of five along with formal education. This means that young children will be taught about their bodies, emotions, the basic principles of consent, and how to deal with violence, bullying or abuse. As per the review ‘Three Decades of Research: The Case for Comprehensive Sex Education’ in the Journal of Adolescent Health quoted by the World Health Organization, with comprehensive sexuality education, young people will be better informed of their rights and sexuality, and will be more likely to engage in sexual activity later. Programmes built only on the concept of abstinence have not been effective.

The ramifications of a comprehensive sexuality education are far-reaching, especially in the matter of intimate partner violence. The UNFPA Operational Guidance for Comprehensive Sexuality Education key intervention area 4 states, “Ensure that the CSE programmes include sound monitoring and evaluation components, with due consideration to inequality, gender norms, power in intimate relationships, and intimate partner violence.” On August 10, 2023, the State Council of Educational Research and Training informed the Kerala High Court that awareness about POCSO would be included in the curriculum from 2024-25. With the relationship between sexual health and human rights being complex, non-linear and interrelated, it is hoped that the curriculum is holistic and not simply related to legalities.

The UNESCO 2021 Global Status Report on ‘the journey towards comprehensive sexuality education’ says that capacity-building of teachers is critical as the curriculum requires non-intuitive participatory pedagogies. The report cautions against the effects of inaccurate information, and values that silence discussions on sexuality and rights. Teachers reported that they lacked the knowledge to talk about diverse topics with the existing programmes. The report highlights a government-NGO case study from Jharkhand, where a school-based programme, Udaan, which began as an Adolescent Reproductive and Sexual Health programme led by the State AIDS Control was Society, got mainstreamed into the Education Department, as a model of commitment to scale up comprehensive sexuality education.

In India, the responsibility of sexuality education is vested with the State governments. Each State has the freedom to develop creative curriculums within the framework suggested by the UNFPA. It is time they did so.

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