It's been almost two years since the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) asked schools to introduce sex education in some way or the other. However, both the education system and society are reluctant to even accept the fact that issues of sexuality, reproductive health or safe sex need to be dealt with at school level.
I realised this bitter truth soon after I began marketing my book, 'The I-File: Intimate Facts for Indian Teenagers', to different schools, libraries and bookstores in 2003. I decided to write the book after I realised that not a single book on the subject was available in any of the bookstores or libraries in Delhi. My interaction with NGOs working with teenagers on the subject of sexual health further confirmed that there was a growing need for some basic books on sex education.
I went in for self-publishing, fearing that most publishers may not touch a basic book on sex education. In a conversational style, designed to hold the attention of today's teenagers, the book approaches the subject of sex by first giving a perspective on gender relations, dating, and peer pressure. There are also chapters devoted to explaining the sex act, homosexuality and child abuse.
A Class 8 student of a prestigious South Delhi school once confessed to me that students in his class brought pornographic CDs in their school bags and exchanged them for viewing at home. I requested a teacher of the school to get me some time with the principal - one of Delhi's well-known educationists - to talk about my book, which can be used to initiate the topic of sex education among teenagers. The teacher said she dared not suggest anything on such a 'sensitive' topic to the principal.
Another private school in South Delhi was willing to allow a one-hour presentation to a 75-student gathering, one gender at a time, on education. But "No, no book." Result: When children are left with dozens of questions in their minds after a 60-minute eye-opener, there will be no answers.
Research has shown that if children are given proper sex education, the age at which they experiment with sex is pushed back. They are also likely to use a contraceptive during their first sexual experience. They can also protect themselves against abuse. All this is detailed in the preface of my book, but I wonder if the principals of 35 schools - to whom I sent the book for free - have bothered to read it.
These days, several private schools in Delhi are hosting `health and hygiene' workshops where companies sell health foods and sanitary napkins. But when it comes to introducing sex education in schools, most tell you it cannot be done. Almost all are reluctant to introduce a book - or any such kind of literature - in school.
A more forthcoming Delhi school principal admits, "I am always on pins and needles that nothing bad, nothing untoward should happen in the school." She feels society has a dual approach to sex education: that yes, sex education should be there, but my own daughter should be kept away from it. She puts it succinctly: "This duality haunts all of us, whether we talk about it or not."
Day scholars with access to television, CDs and the Internet may find it possible to satisfy their natural curiosity, albeit from dubious sources. But in boarding schools, where children don't have such access, sex education is even more neglected. An old librarian from a convent in Nainital (Uttaranchal) bought 10 copies of my book during a book exhibition. "It's for my teachers," she explained. Encouraged by this, I sent around 100 brochures about the book to similar boarding schools around the country. Only one missionary school principal from Kolkata responded!
So, I decided to personally go and visit some premier boarding schools. At Welham Girl's School,Dehradun (Uttaranchal), the principal's response to requests to introduce the book or conduct a workshop on the issue was an emphatic 'No'. Her reasoning was that if the book were given to senior classes, it would filter down to the junior section. Since the boarding school starts from Class 6 (where most students are 11-12 years of age), I thought this an unnecessary precaution.
Even the government, under pressure from the World Health Organisation, agreed in 1992 to start sex education by the age of 12. Of course, their intention has hardly been translated into reality; even though 34 per cent of HIV affected persons are in the 12-19 age-group. Surveys (like the one conducted by the Vidyasagar Institute of Mental Health and Neurological Sciences, Delhi, in 2003, for instance) show that children themselves feel the need for sex education.
At Doon School, Dehradun, the idea of a book was promptly welcomed, and expanded to that of a three-day workshop with individual counselling in the evening. The school authorities even rubbished the idea of asking for parents' concurrence before doing so, implying that parents hardly knew what was best for the kids. Nobody would agree with that more than the Canadian who runs a 'youth centre' in the same town, offering counselling to teenagers. He says that most troubled teenagers are adamant that their parents should not be brought into the picture, as "they won't understand".
But when it came to fixing a date, the school found that their calendar was full right up to the exam season. The Canadian counsellor too refused to circulate the book - for it talked about contraception, which he thought would encourage promiscuous behaviour.
Unspoken in such attitudes is the belief that children are somehow 'spoilt' by the knowledge of sex. Of course, the fact that it is being thrust into their faces all the time by television is ignored. At Dehradun's most popular bookstore, the owner said, "Why do you want them to lose their innocence?" She refused to put the book on the shelf, saying that if under-age children wanted to buy it, she wouldn't be able to stop them. Wouldn't children who are already in quest of such knowledge then seek answers on the net?
A lot of the current thinking among NGOs seems to be that teachers and parents should be educated first. But I wonder: can you teach an old dog new tricks? Do we have the time? It seems that while the adult world is indulging itself in voyeurism as never before, it is refusing adolescents their right to at least satisfy their curiosity on an academic level.
Modern parents, too, when they go for parent-teacher meetings, are focused only on marks and push all other concerns to the back of their minds. Our society only hopes that children get through adolescence without getting 'spoilt', shutting its eyes to the upheavals and hormonal excesses of ages 12-18. A girl may get through those 'dangerous' years physically safe, but at what cost to her psychological state? A boy can be prevented from experimenting, but he will certainly develop a warped idea about sex from pornography - as most boys seem to.