The Supreme Court on 16 November this year decided that sex education in schools cannot be brought under the ambit of fundamental rights by making it a part of the right to education. "We cannot make it (sex education) a fundamental right," a bench comprising Justice Ruma Pal and Justice A R Lakshmanan said while dealing with a Public Interest Litigation, which had suggested making sex education in schools compulsory. The NGO, Nari Raksha Samiti, had submitted that sex education in school curricula could play a role in checking the rise in rape cases. Though agreeing with the suggestion, the bench said it cannot be given the status of a fundamental right on the same footing as the right to education itself.

A couple of years ago, Ram Chandra Purbey, the former primary education minister for the state of Bihar, exclaimed the following; "Our society is not an open one. Inclusion of sex education in the syllabus can also have an adverse effect". This statement clearly indicates government attitudes on the issue of sex education, and the misconstrued notion of unpleasant effects of people having sex in every possible corner. Dangerously enough, there is no consensus in India over introducing sex and reproductive health education in the school and college syllabus. Meanwhile, the reality is that a large population of about 300 million young people is in the age group 12-24, and studies are showing their growing preference for pre-marital sex. In a survey in 2002 by The Week magazine, of unmarried young Indians, 69 per cent of men admitted to pre-marital sex compared to 38 per cent of women. In the 16-19 group, forty-five per cent had pre-marital sex, while 27 per cent were 15 years or under and 28 per cent were 20 years or older. (Note)

WHO pointer

Early sex education delays the start of sexual activity, reduces sexual activity among young people, and encourages those already sexually active to have safer sex. Researchers have found "no support for the contention that sex education encourages sexual experimentation or increased activity."

Such findings reveal a continuing denial in government-speak about the reality in our society. Central and state governments are taking a moralistic position on this issue and have refused to recognise the magnitude of the problem. Ignorance and sex can be a troubling and sometimes deadly mix for young people and people living under suffocating societal demands. In the midst of all this, non-governmental organisations have been trying to produce and distribute their own guidebooks to address what they see missing in the school syllabus on sex education, but their efforts have met with opposition.

Woman and Sex Education

Asked whether starting sex-education at 14 years is too late, about 92.46 per cent respondents have said 'yes' in an 8888 poll this year. Therefore, the implications are clear the subject must indeed be introduced in schools at the pre-teen level itself.

Contrastingly, a school for brides in Madhya Pradesh teaches women how to be ideal wives by serving their husband and his family, but keeps sex off the curriculum. The 18-year-old Manju Sanskar Kendra funded by businessmen in the state capital, Bhopal, aims to "smooth" a bride's path with a special three-month training course, which includes cooking, sewing and daily prayers. The school charges no fees and boasts of having trained over 4,000 girls between the ages of 18 to 21. However, the bridal finishing school manages to avoid one of the key issues in any marriage, and does not give any sex education or talk about safe sex. "At the school we've been told to please our husbands at all times and have children, which I suppose means sex," explains a 22-year-old "student". Furthermore, and maybe due to the privileged status of men in our country, only 5% of Indian men use condom according to Dr. Avni Amni at Center for Health and Gender Equity. Most parents in India are not aware of their role in imparting sex education, explains Amit Jain, a well-known sex counsellor; "Sex education doesn't even figure at all in the priorities of the Indian parents.”

Sex education is also a means to respect a partner, a wife, a husband, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, and a means to respect sexual preferences. It is also a means to question and understand the existence of assault and sexual violence in our country and to increase gender equality. The lack of understanding about sexual issues is more risky, and more likely to lead young people to have unwanted pregnancies, abortions and STDs, and sometimes sex related violence. There are so many crucial issues at hand, which could be saved and cured by means of sex education.

WHO on Sex Education

Back in 1993, a survey of 35 sex education projects conducted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) showed that sex education in schools did not encourage young people to have sex at an earlier age or more frequently. Rather importantly, the survey showed that early sex education delays the start of sexual activity, reduces sexual activity among young people and encourages those already sexually active to have safer sex. Furthermore, the WHO published a review of 1,050 scientific articles on sex education programmes. Researchers found "no support for the contention that sex education encourages sexual experimentation or increased activity. If any effect is observed, almost without exception, it is in the direction of postponed initiation of sexual intercourse and/or effective use of contraception." Failure to provide appropriate and timely information "misses the opportunity of reducing the unwanted outcomes of unintended pregnancy and transmission of STDs, and is, therefore, in the disservice of our youth," the report called Effects of Sex Education on Young People's Sexual Behavior says. This report was commissioned by the Youth and General Public Unit, Office of Intervention and Development and Support, Global Program on AIDS, and the WHO.

Illustration: Farzana Cooper

Child Abuse and Sex Education

The Delhi-based Sakshi Violation Intervention Centre in a 1997 study that interviewed 350 school children, found that 63 per cent of the girl respondents had been sexually abused by a family member; 25 per cent raped, and over 30 per cent sexually abused by the father, grandfather or a male friend of the family. A 1999 study by the Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Social Sciences revealed that 58 of the 150 girls interviewed had been raped before they were 10 years old. RAHI, a Delhi-based organisation that provides support to victims of sexual abuse, reports that of the 1,000 upper and higher-middle class college students interviewed, 76 per cent had been abused as children, 31 per cent by someone known to the family and 40 per cent by a family member, and 50 per cent of them before the age of 12.

However, despite the gravity of the problem, the various facets of child sexual abuse are never discussed within the educational system. Dr. Preethi Menon, a Chennai-based paediatric psychiatrist dealing with child sexual abuse, underlines that "this secrecy has to be broken"; for this, she lays stress on talking to children about sexual abuse, listening to them, believing them, and recognising symptoms such as physical complaints and behavioural and psychological changes. She says: "Silence does not mean all is fine with the child."

Bizarrely, the educational system has missed out on informing its children that the moment an abuse has taken place something wrong has taken place. This is nothing foreign; most civilised nations use the educational system as a crucial means to inform children about what amounts to a sexual assault or crime against a minor, and about the various victim support systems. Maybe, it is immature to believe that sensitive issues such as incest would be dealt with in a set-up, which does not even believe in sex education in schools. There is a lack of a system of awareness, where the adults' accountability towards a child fails in the gravest manner.

The U.S.-based non-profit group, Programme for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), has projects that target not only students but high school-based sex educators around the world, as for instance in Thailand. "It is like being full after eating rice. Once you find out all about it, you don't need to go and try it out or find out about it from somewhere else," a PATH student says. "In fact, it (sex education) makes you think that it should not be easy to decide to have sex because there are plenty of hassles that can result." In short, some youngsters say, they need correct information delivered effectively. "The more it (sex) is concealed, the more we (teenagers) want to know."

Sex Education and HIV/AIDS

"Too many people think that neither sex education nor AIDS education is compatible with their notion of Indian culture."
-- Dr Balaji, NCERT adviser

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With more than 4.5 million people infected by HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, India has become the world's second largest hub of the disease, but some states are still in denial. That means that while India has the second-largest population of HIV sufferers after South Africa, a taboo on talking openly about sex has ensured that sex education is not taught in schools, and people, especially women, are reluctant to seek treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.

According to Dr Balaji, advisor to the National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT), the NCERT has so far been playing it safe because of the explosiveness of the issue of sex education, which cannot be separated from AIDS education. "Too many people think that neither is compatible with their notion of Indian culture." Dr Balaji adds that India has come a long way from the day in 1993 when he was nearly assaulted by the principal of a government school in Madhya Pradesh where he and his team were attempting to introduce a course in sex education.

In the meantime, as the AIDS epidemic spreads, the battle against it is mired by a lack of consensus on the extent of the pandemic, the "right strategy" to combat it, and how to deal frankly with sexuality. In early 2003 the Indian Health Minister Sushma Swaraj told the press that the country's AIDS program had to focus on sexual abstinence and faith rather than just condoms. Horrifyingly, most individuals are tested for HIV without their consent and knowledge. Because of the stigma attached to the disease, not many willingly undergo tests or talk about their trauma.

Sex Education and Sexual Minorities

The questions within persons who experience homosexuality as their reality causes them additional trauma when suffocating demands are placed even on heterosexual behaviour in the society. Though debate about the cause of homosexuality continues, scientists and social theorists tend to agree that nobody chooses to be homosexual. Available data from the US, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere in Europe tend to place the homosexual population between 3-8% of the total population. The question is no longer whether homosexuality is natural, but whether homosexuals should enjoy the same rights and privileges as other citizens. One of the rights inclusive in the privileges is "the right to be informed". Proponents of comprehensive sex education believe that a common approach to sex education is necessary to reduce risky behaviours such as unprotected sex, and equip individuals to make informed decisions about their personal sexual activity. Additionally, they contend that education about homosexuality encourages tolerance, but does not "turn masses gay" as some conservatives believe.

The silence and shame around the issue of homosexuality is so great and the fear of being isolated and discriminated is so prevalent that a lot of those who are caught by the police prefer to pay the police rather than fight back referring to their Human Rights. Almost none of the cases go to court with the person being let off after he has paid of the police officer. Human Rights abuses are actually legitimised by laws which treat homosexuals as secretive, criminal, and so on; the lack of support for them from the educational and legal systems compounds the social misery.

Governmental attitudes to homesexuality are worrisomely in line with positions on sexuality, AIDS and sex education itself, the views are not particularly surprising. Naz Foundation, an NGO, had brought an action in the Delhi High Court challenging the constitutionality of section 377 Indian Penal Code (IPC), which talks of homosexual intercourse as unnatural sex. The Central Government dithered for two years before it filed its response. It did so only after immense pressure from civil society organizations and the passing of several strictures by the court. While its dithering is understandable as a tactic to lose another problematic litigation in the jungle of half a million or so cases clogging the Indian judiciary, the substance of its reply brings to light the culture straitjacket.

In paragraph 32 of the reply the government states: “In fact, the purpose of this section 377 IPC is to provide a healthy environment in the society by criminalizing unnatural sexual activities against the order of nature.” And then goes on to add in Paragraph 33: "If this provision is taken out of the statute book, a public display of such affection would, at the most, attract charges of indecent exposure which carry a lesser jail sentence than the existing imprisonment for life or imprisonment of 10 years and fine. While the Government cannot police morality, in a civil society criminal law has to express and reflect public morality and concerns about harm to the society at large. If this is not observed, whatever little respect of law is left would disappear, as law would have lost its legitimacy." In other words, seemingly the government maintains that if 'unnatural' sex is not prohibited, the normal social order would break down, moreover, the issues relating to sexual minorities is not an Indian issue, but more of something which happens in the West.


The recently passed World AIDS Day is another reminder to go beyond campaigns to "safe sex and right to sex education". Students must feel comfortable seeking counselling on sex-related issues. The tactic is to speak the same language as students do and to keep an open mind. There is no right or wrong answer when talking about sex, and every question needs to be answered, no matter how private. This up-front approach would surely decrease the frustrations and aggressions linked to sexuality amongst youth.