Case for sex education in schools

Laura Keenan

It makes sense to provide students with reliable sources of information rather than leaving them to peers, television or the Internet.

The government recently proposed the introduction of an Adolescence Education Programme (AEP) in schools affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education. After receiving a petition objecting to the proposal, the Parliamentary Petitions Committee (Rajya Sabha) opened up the issue for public comment. Since then, it has been inundated with thousands of responses, including many passionate and highly predictable denouncements of school-based sex education. Moralisers claim that the programme is a covert Western conspiracy to re-colonise India’s youth, promote premarital sex and undermine traditional family values via branded contraceptives.

In the face of these arguments for cultural conservatism, it might be easy to forget that India is now home to the highest number of HIV-positive people. It might also be easy to forget that, according to a Union government report, 53 per cent of Indian children are victims of some form of sexual abuse. In this context, it is in the country’s own interests to ensure that exaggerated fears do not dissuade legislators from taking a strong stance on the importance of open sex education, and to recognise that the AEP can play a critical role in promoting gender awareness, combating the rapid spread of HIV and empowering the young to protect themselves against sexual exploitation.

There has been substantial research on the effectiveness of the comprehensive sex/sexuality education model, as developed in the AEP. Ironically, the high rates of teenage pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Infection in the United Kingdom and the United States have been used to indicate the failure of the comprehensive approach. These countries have two of the most conservative approaches to sex education in the industrialised world. In the U.K., sex education is not compulsory. Schools rarely provide more than 10 hours of sex education, and the focus is on the biological aspects of sexual activity and risk reduction. Four per cent of girls under 18 become pregnant every year (the highest rate in Europe) — 10 per cent in some areas. Fifteen-year-old girls in England are twice as likely to be sexually active as those in France and Holland. Cases of gonorrhoea among teenage boys increased by 107 per cent between 1999 and 2005.

On the contrary, the comprehensive and discursive “life skills” model is designed to encourage young people to consider the responsibilities of growing up. “Life Skills,” says Edward C. Green of the Harvard Centre for Population and Development, “refers to training youth in such skills as interpersonal relationships, self-awareness and self-esteem, problem solving, effective communication, decision-making, negotiating sex or NOT having sex, resisting peer pressure, critical thinking, formation of friendships, and empathy. These are referred to as cognitive skills and they seem to help youth make healthy and indeed life-saving decisions.”

In Holland, comprehensive sexuality education begins in primary school. It reports the highest use of contraception among young people, and the lowest pregnancy rate in Europe. The average age of the first sexual encounter at 17.7 years is not higher than elsewhere on the continent.

So why is it worth defending the AEP?

1. According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, young people have a fundamental right to information that will empower them to protect their health and wellbeing. To achieve this, educators must make children aware of sexual abuse and exploitation as well as STIs, HIV/AIDS and pregnancy.

2. Participatory sex education encourages discussion of relationships. People have strong views on sexuality and the socio-cultural frameworks in which it operates; it is important to be able to discuss these values in an atmosphere which discourages prejudice. A plethora of studies suggests that open and participatory sex education empowers young people to say “no,” rather than promoting promiscuity. It has been shown to defer rather than encourage sexual activity, motivate the use of contraceptives, and reduce the number of sexual partners. According to research by the World Health Organisation, the proportion of Ugandan males aged 15-24 reporting premarital sex decreased from 60 per cent in 1989 to 23 per cent in 1995 after the implementation of the “Life Skills” programme. Among women, the decline was from 53 to 16 per cent.

3. The government states HIV/AIDS prevention was the impetus behind the development of the AEP. The programme follows the ABC (Abstinence, Be faithful, use a Condom) model of education. To prevent and treat STIs, it advocates: abstinence; safe sex; being faithful; use of condoms, correctly and consistently; and staying away from casual relationships.

Few would contest the fundamentals of this methodology — a staggered approach to prevention that is tailored to calculation of risk. Critics have argued that the emphasis on condom use is inappropriate given the failure rate. However, the failure rate (10 per cent) currently takes into account “incorrect” usage. Based on his work in Uganda, Edward C. Green has admitted that the problem lies in the difficult and demanding behavioural change that correct condom usage represents, and not in its overall effectiveness. This change requires a lasting nation/State-wide commitment to integrated education programmes.

4. ABC is not in itself sufficient for targeting HIV/AIDS. Added to this is the need to improve women’s status and negotiating skills. Women currently account for 39 per cent of HIV infections in India, and it is believed that this figure is rising. As such, gender awareness and women’s rights are central to the AEP, empowering young women to enter into sexual relations (and childbearing) on their own terms. Paul Hunt, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, has also talked about life skills training as a means of tackling India’s frighteningly high maternal mortality rate. This is envisioned as part of a coordinated set of medical services and information — “life skills training, talking about healthy gender relations, the issue of contraception and the need to ensure access to a wide range of contraceptive services.”

Ample social research

To those who argue that family-orientated India has no need for this sort of information or discussion, there is ample social research which figures to the contrary. A study coordinated by the National Institute of Heath and Family Welfare (2001) surveyed premarital sexuality and contraceptive needs among young people from different backgrounds in Delhi and Lucknow. It concluded that premarital sex varies from 17 per cent among schoolchildren to 33 per cent among young workers in the typical north Indian population. Of 3,300 respondents, around one-third were lacking in awareness of safe sex. Two common reasons for their not using condoms were reluctance to obtain them (39.3 per cent) and the fear of side-effects (34.3 per cent).

A 1997 study of 966 Mumbai college-goers revealed that 47 per cent of male and 13 per cent of female participants had engaged in some form of sexual experience (International Family Planning Perspectives). According to the UNICEF, a “question box” put up in schools in one district of Maharashtra received over 1,00,000 queries a year. As National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) Director-General Sujatha Rao states: “There is an obvious need for information. We are not giving young people ideas; the ideas are already there.” On this account, it makes sense to provide students with reliable sources of information rather than leaving them to peers, television or the Internet.

Whilst governments must safeguard the right of the young people to access essential information, the framework does not preclude the possibility of working with community workers, health providers, educators and young people themselves to adapt the material and methodology. A NACO official points out that the foreword to the AEP manual explicitly advises State education departments to modify the content to suit local conditions.

But educators and policymakers need to take a firm stand on introducing participative sex education in schools. The rising incidence of sexual abuse of children and number of teenage pregnancies, State/nationwide spread of HIV/AIDS and attitudes to maternal health demand a strong official stand and policy.

(The author is a researcher at the Centre for Legislative Research and Advocacy, New Delhi. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and are not meant to represent the opinions of the organisation with which the author is associated.)

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