Let's NOT Talk About Sex, Baby

Despite a full-blown AIDS epidemic, some state governments bans sex education in public schools

New America Media, Commentary, Viji Sundaram Posted: Dec 01, 2007

Editor's Note: Even though some 44 percent of reported AIDS cases in India occur among 15 to 29 year olds, sex education that promotes safe sex in public schools is facing major opposition from local governments. But this conundrum could be deadly for the country with the highest number of infection rates in the world. Viji Sundaram is New America Media's Health editor.

Back in the 1940s, when my mother was going to an all-girls Catholic school in southern India, the sex education she and her classmates received was limited to the importance of abstinence, with the nuns tiptoeing around the word ‘sex’. The girls, for their part, sat giggling, their eyes lowered to the floor.

In most schools in India, educators are still tiptoeing around the subject of sex, although there’s been a strong shift in the mindset of private school students, who are trying their best to force their teachers to get sex out of the closet – especially because their own parents won’t. After all, these kids have seen and heard it all – on the Internet, in salacious music videos, Bollywood movies and even on temple carvings. They know it’s their country that gave the world the Kama Sutras. So what’s all the fuss about?

If India continues to not take bold measures when it comes to sex education in schools, warns Chennai-based AIDS activist Dr. Manorama Pinagappany: “Girls will continue to grow up with poor coping skills in times of crisis, be exploited, trafficked and will never access health care services,” especially those who come from conservative homes, where mothers hesitate to talk to daughters about something even as simple as menstruation.

Last August, alarmed by the growing number of children infected with sexually transmitted diseases, including the AIDS virus, the central government launched an “Adolescent Education Program” in high schools. They weren’t fooling anyone with that euphemistic title though because one of the education tools was a flipchart with illustrations of naked bodies and detailed drawings of genitalia.

The issue has provoked an emotional debate in India between those who assert that such a program will check the spread of HIV by promoting safe sex, and those who say it will “corrupt” young minds. Many of those who oppose the program belong to the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition party in Congress. It was this same party that threw a fit when Indians began observing Valentine’s Day a few years ago. Former BJP Minister Murli Manohar Joshi called the sex education program a “foreign conspiracy by international NGOs to get money under the guise of AIDS control and education.” The “foreign conspiracy” charge was the outcome of the United Nations Children’s Fund’s involvement in the development of the program.

More than 10 of India’s 29 states, including some of its more progressive, have since banned sex education in public schools, with several others considering such a ban. Private schools, however, are sensibly continuing the lessons, but many have watered them down to avoid controversy.

Here in the United States, Bush has proposed a 2008 budget of $204 million, which is one-third of the AIDS prevention budget, to continue the Clinton administration’s abstinence-only sex education program in America’s public schools. This despite a congressional study that recently found that abstinence-only education, which emphasizes chastity as the best practice for teens, did not really influence young people’s decisions on whether to have sex. Some 12 schools have sensibly avoided abstinence-only curricula by declining the funds that mandate it.

One wonders why Joshi and his cohorts would sabotage a program that promises a sure-fire way to curb the spread of AIDS in a country that has the largest number of HIV positive people, 70,000 of them children. One poll found that youngsters, especially those who are affluent, are willing to postpone marriage, but not sex. Another found that 50 percent of women are estimated to be sexually active by 18 years, and 52 percent have their first pregnancy between 15 and 19 years. Nearly 44 percent of reported AIDS cases in India occur among 15 to 29 year olds.

Even before the controversy over the Adolescent Education Program erupted in India, Piya Sorcar – an Indian American graduate student at Stanford University’s School of Education – developed, with help from her professors, researchers, educators, technology experts and fellow students, an animation-based tutorial to teach HIV/AIDS in developing countries. The tutorial, which she says is well within India’s “cultural norms,” emphasizes the biology of HIV/AIDS, presenting a storyline with a dialogue between a curious student and a friendly yet authoritative cartoon “doctor” on the biological facts about the disease, its spread and prevention.

"HIV/AIDS is a difficult subject to talk about in India and other developing countries,” acknowledged Sorcar. “What we often forget is that HIV is a virus, and we study viruses all the time in biology class.” She tested it out in India last September, and it received rave reviews. Said S. Sinha, an advisor in the Government of India’s Ministry of Science and Technology: “Because the curriculum decouples sex education from AIDS education, it can be used all over India, and is especially useful in areas where sex education is restricted.”

Today, on World AIDS Day, India’s Union Minister for Health Anbumani Ramadoss will flag off from Delhi the “Red Ribbon Express,” a seven-coach train that will traverse 9,000 kilometers and cover 180 districts across the country. It will halt at hundreds of stations, especially in rural areas, and conduct hundreds of thousands of programs and activities to create awareness about AIDS prevention and treatment, particularly targeting the youth.

Hopefully, the BJP will not try to put the brakes on this. For India, creating such awareness is a matter of life and death.

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