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The bogey of sex education

By Neha Madhiwalla

As the tussle between proponents of sex education in schools and conservatives who wish to ban it continues, Neha Madhiwalla writes that the evidence of the benefits of sex education is not very convincing

In recent months, a number of state governments have passed orders banning sex education in schools. The immediate provocation was a manual for teachers produced by the NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training), which allegedly features offensive illustrations and classroom exercises.

Although many commentators have labelled this a reaction by right-wing conservative governments, this is a bit unfair considering that Kerala was one of the first states to institute the ban.

Much of the debate has so far centred around the concept of sex education per se, with neither side seeming to have delved too deep into what this constitutes.

In view of the high degree of 'sexualisation' of public life today, the argument against sex education in schools would appear somewhat anachronistic. Everything from HIV/AIDS campaigns to product ads and the Internet introduces adolescents to sexuality. The specific advantage of introducing sex education in schools is that one can direct what adolescents are exposed to and also (importantly) use the moral/social authority of the school as an institution to reinforce more positive, equitable ideas about sexuality.

For the large part, parents give schools the freedom to deal with their children's education as they see fit. They do not question what or why or how their children are taught. Therefore, the school's decision to impart sex education would face less resistance than any such effort by an external agency.

Ironically, however, schools are compelled to meet parents' expectations of schools as places of propriety and rigid discipline. And sex education threatens this fine balance. Hence the high-profile tussle for the social space of schools between proponents of sex education and the conservatives who wish to ban it.

Whilst I would definitely side with the former, I do have some doubts. For one, contrary to the general impression that the liberal intellectual has, the evidence for the benefits of sex education is not very convincing. Other factors such as class, the presence of supportive adults, exposure to violence, addiction and other kinds of risks, play a more important role in determining the health outcomes for adolescents than sex education. Also, it is not really true that low levels of knowledge about sexual health automatically lead to adverse health outcomes. Again, other factors play an important role.

At the same time, it is quite well established that imparting sex education does not induce adolescents to take more risks. It is also established that adolescents have a natural curiosity about their bodies, sexuality and reproduction, and if the school system fails to provide them with the information, they will seek it from other sources -- their peers, the media, the Internet, etc.

So, are we to conclude that sex education does not harm children but we also don't know how much good it does?

This question would have an answer if we knew what 'good' means. Ironically, as far as teenagers are concerned, we know what we do not want happening to them. We know, for instance, that we do not want them to have unprotected sex (or sex, period), get pregnant early, be forced to have sex, develop STDs, etc.

But what is it that we do want? It's difficult to find half-a-dozen decent goals that we would like adolescents to achieve as a result of sex education. Long-term goals such as increased age at marriage and first pregnancy are much more dependent on structural change than on behaviour change education. For example, the phenomenon of teenage pregnancy in India is related not to lack of awareness among adolescents but to the widespread practice of child marriage.

Secondly, sex education is only peripherally about sex. Any well designed, adequately researched programme would include discussions on the entire range of relationships and social situations that surround sexuality. In my experience of working with adolescent girls on life skills and reproductive health, I have found that the easiest part is actually the sex part. It is surprising how quickly adolescents get over the embarrassment and the excitement of talking about taboo topics. After that, learning anatomy can be made as much fun and as mundane as plumbing!

The difficult part is the part that deals with emotions, values and social norms. These force the teacher/trainer to take moral/political stands that may not be popular with the authorities. For example, a group of social communications students completed a detailed description of the ovum's journey from the ovary to the uterus. During the feedback session, a 16-year-old girl asked: "Is it okay to fall in love with a boy from another religion?" I would love to find a teacher who knows the right answer to that! Of course, it's easy to give the politically correct answer in a textbook, but actually verbalising it in a school located inside a ghetto peopled by victims of a riot requires much more courage.

This is where the real problem lies. I don't think that the question of whether it is 'right' to introduce sex education in schools can be separated from the question of what it should consist of and who should teach it. Very often it is quite evident that the training/teaching material has been designed not with a real situation in mind but an abstract ideal that is factually and politically correct but completely devoid of context.

This schism between those who design the curriculum and those who actually teach it is a significant one. The former bases its curriculum on what they assume adolescents should know; the latter bases its response on what they assume adolescents are socially allowed to know.

And this generic problem is made particularly acute by the environment in our schools. The concept of 'good' education in India is largely associated with strict adherence to rules, and there is a huge premium placed on obedience. It is also important to remember that this obedience is not limited to students but extends all the way to the top of the education hierarchy. Independent-minded teachers are not appreciated by school administrators. For their part, school managements quickly sideline innovative or critical school administrators.

Thus, one of the biggest hurdles in introducing sex education in schools is the larger school context in which we expect it to work. To expect that participatory methods and free discussion would actually be possible in the average school setup is a fantasy.

Teachers are, not surprisingly, the most vociferous critics of sex education. Firstly, they feel that teaching sex education trivialises their work and reduces their prestige as teachers. This would be easier to understand if we were to imagine the rural (or even urban) context in which the teacher is very visibly at the mercy of the school authorities or influential community members. In order to be respected by their students, particularly adolescents who are much more aware about school politics and community affairs, they would like to maintain a social distance between themselves and their students. This is severely compromised by talking about something as personal as sex. Also, teaching in our country is almost entirely based on rote learning, in which 'right' and 'wrong' are determined by the textbook. Sex education in particular is not amenable to this kind of treatment.

And so medical people are appointed experts on sex education; they readily oblige by reducing sexuality to the structure and functions of the reproductive system. Often, pedagogues would also insist that the subject be dealt with in this manner in order to make it more impersonal and, hence, less awkward to teach. As a resource person, I am advised to give students 'good, scientific information'. Out of sheer embarrassment, many hosts confer an honorary medical degree on me for their own consolation!

Whether this strategy of imparting sex education really works is debatable. Students are interested in science, particularly about their own body. But their interest has less to do with medicine and more to do with social life. Also, we have seen through experience that for adolescents to learn to love themselves and respect their bodies, it's important they are successful in their social lives. I will always remember one girl in our programme who was completely withdrawn and felt very negatively about her looks and her body. Her self-image improved dramatically when she became the unofficial class leader and was given more responsibility and, consequently, more credit in the school. Everything about her, from the care she took of herself to her ability to take control of her body changed drastically.

Being aware of the scientific facts alone does not protect adolescents from abuse. It is social skills, a high level of self-respect, and a supportive environment that allow adolescents to make healthy and empowering choices. However, I have found few institutions that have the commitment to see adolescents through this long journey. Most are content to evaluate marginal improvements in knowledge levels and leave it at that.

Finally, all those who work in this field are faced with a personal dilemma about how much is too much. One of the most endearing characteristics about adolescents is their ability to be adults and children at the same time. This is also one of the most frustrating problems we have to work with. Whilst on the one hand it feels right to give adolescents information and discuss the more negative aspects of life, on the other you have a gnawing doubt that they are not ready for it yet. I remember having a long discussion with a bunch of 16-17-year-olds about relationships with men, the immediate concern being that they were going to venture out of their slum alone for the first time, to appear for their school-leaving exams. We spoke about a lot of things -- about love, friendship, platonic relationships, exploitative relationships, etc. And all the time they kept nodding their heads and affirming my views. So, with a sense of accomplishment I said: "So, as you can see, it is only in the movies that you meet someone on the bus for the first time and that person becomes your life partner." They all nodded sagely, then one of them added: "But didi we are all hoping that it will happen that way." I did not have the heart to dash such a fabulous hope.

(Neha Madhiwalla is a health researcher and activist. She works with Sahyog School Without Walls, a nonformal educational programme for adolescent girls. She is a co-author of Jhula, a comprehensive life-skills curriculum for girls)

InfoChange News & Features, June 2007