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Opinion

India, can we talk openly about sex please?

Comprehensive sex education programs are urgently needed

| India
Indian school girls look at plastic models of a man and a woman in Mumbai in February 2003: sex education would be a driving force in resolving many of the urgent problems plaguing Indian society.   © Reuters

Rathina Sankari is a freelance writer based in India.

Famous for its erotic sculptures, the World Heritage-listed Khajuraho Group of Monuments in the state of Madhya Pradesh is but one example of how ancient Indian culture celebrated sex. The world's first sex treatise, the Kama Sutra, is another.

Unfortunately, modern India is not so liberal in its thoughts, and sex remains a taboo subject. It is time that changed. For India to move forward sociologically and economically, sex education is crucial.

To use one example from my childhood: When I was 12 years old, I was playing in an alley with a group of friends when we encountered a man openly masturbating. While I found the entire episode creepy, none of us had the slightest idea what he was doing. Comprehensive sex education would not only have helped the stranger understand what should be done in private and public, but it would also have helped us understand what had happened.

As a teenager, my father told me to read a two-page article on sex education for teenagers from a health magazine. But he never uttered the highly controversial three-letter word while asking me to read.

Most children and adolescents in India have zero, or at least incomplete, knowledge on vital subjects including sexual abuse, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, female reproductive health and basic hygiene because sex education is not part of the academic curriculum.

Recently, in my son's 10th-grade science class, when it came time to study sexual reproduction in animals, the teacher skipped the topic, saying she was uncomfortable discussing such subjects in a virtual classroom when the parents of the students might overhear at home. Instead, she provided notes on the subject for her students to study in private.

Whenever the need to address sex education in schools comes up, parent groups and politicians from different political parties, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the opposition Congress, raise their voices against it.

In 2005, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) came up with the comprehensive Adolescence Reproductive and Sexual Health Education program. But CBSE schools were never able to implement the program in full.

After the National Council of Educational Research and Training, in conjunction with the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the United Nations Population Fund, in 2005 launched the Adolescence Education Program, which aimed to teach students about sexuality, HIV and AIDS, within two years 12 of India's 28 states had banned it.

Madhya Pradesh's Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, from the Bharatiya Janata Party, discontinued the program on the basis that he was taken aback by the course material's pictures.

In April 2009, a parliamentary committee chaired by M. Venkaiah Naidu -- the current vice president of India, then a senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader -- denounced the program on the basis that it would "promote promiscuity of the worst kind, strike at the root of the cultural fabric, corrupt Indian youth and lead to the collapse of the education system."

In 2014, India's current health minister, Harsh Vardhan, raised his voice to ban sex education of any kind, claiming that it went against Indian tradition and values. Instead, he recommended yoga and celibacy.

For the longest time, India has remained one of the world's most rigid patriarchies. Outside the metropolitan cities, most teenage girls and boys are barred from interacting with each other. While boys enjoy a privileged life of power, autonomy and freedom of mobility and speech, most Indian girls and women lead a subdued and objectified life wholly dominated by men.

Indian women carry drinking water pitchers on the outskirts of Ahmadabad in August 2015: most Indian girls and women lead a subdued and objectified life wholly dominated by men.   © AP

Stepping out of home late in the evening, taking a job, deciding not to get married and continue with her education -- these are all examples of the fundamental rights that Indian women are routinely denied. Such a wide gender disparity also instills all the wrong notions surrounding masculinity right from childhood.

Without proper sex education and open interaction between boys and girls, in a misogynistic society saturated with the most toxic masculinity, incidents of rape, sexual molestation and horrific violence against women proliferate.

From 2018 to 2019, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, crimes against women increased 7.3% to 405,861 cases, while the number of reported sex crimes against children jumped 22% to 39,827 between 2017 and 2018.

Today pornography accessed through cheap erotica books and the internet becomes the de facto learning material for boys and girls. Sex education would be a driving force in resolving many of the urgent problems plaguing Indian society.

Teaching about sex should not be limited to school but must start at home. Parents have an indispensable role to play by having open conversations with their children about sex and gender equality.

Explaining how to recognize abuse and protect oneself will also help to reduce incidences of sexual abuse. Children need to understand the importance of respect for the opposite sex as well as consent. Educating teenagers and youths about sexually transmitted diseases, contraceptives and reproductive health will help reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and diseases.

Sex education should not be limited to sexual intimacy. Boys and girls also need to be guided on self-esteem, sex drive, self-identity, sexual orientation and how to be less vulnerable to sexual assault.

A comprehensive sex education curriculum at school will help in the overall development of people from childhood on. While some nongovernmental organizations are working in this direction, they are by and large too few. India has a long way to go.

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