Four years ago, the suicide of a 14-year-old girl, who was pregnant, rejected by her lover and ignorant about sexual matters, generated a nationwide debate over the urgency of giving sex education in schools and colleges. But policymakers have still not formulated any plan or strategy on starting sex education for students.
Teenage pregnancies are on the rise, especially in rural Bangladesh. Though most may not resort to suicide, many girls suffer at the hands of unskilled doctors, nurses and even quacks when they go for abortions. Unfortunately, statistics are not available as most cases are not reported.
Dr Sultana Jahan of Dhaka Medical College says a large number of unmarried, adolescent and even underage girls come to her for abortions. Almost none of them have had any sex education. "These young girls get sexually involved without knowing the consequences. None of them has any concept of protective sex," Jahan says. She adds, "Even boys need sex education. This would reduce the rate of abortions and death of young girls."
Many girls complain that due to conservative social norms, even parents are not forthcoming in sharing information on sex-related matters. Asking about sex is a no-no in an average Muslim Bangladeshi home.
Tuhin, student of Lalmatia College, says she hesitated to even tell her mother when she began menstruating. Zafari, a student of Dhaka University, says that when he was an adolescent he was embarrassed and surprised about his wet dreams. "For a long time I felt guilty about it."
Though most school textbooks include a chapter on human reproduction, teachers rarely touch upon it. "Our children learn how frogs produce tadpoles, but they are not taught how human beings are born," lamented a schoolteacher.
Lack of proper education results in many young people visiting pornographic sites on the Internet to satisfy their curiosity about sexual matters. "But this creates a negative impact on the mind. I kept thinking about girls but could not mix or talk with them freely. It also created a mental distance between me and my parents and other family members," says a university student.
Psychologists like Dr Feroz, director at the National Institute of Mental Health, say such repressed lifestyles only make girls and boys more depressed and sometimes even violent. "In our society, children are taught how to walk, talk and even how to behave with others. But when they want to know about the changes in their bodies and basic things about sex, there is no one to teach them," he says. Feroz is of the opinion that sex education could reduce the rate of rape by 50 per cent.
Though today people are unanimous about the need for sex education, there is disagreement about what should be included in the syllabus and at what age it should be imparted. Iqbal Aziz, director of the Institute of Education and Research of Dhaka University, says sex education should be included in the curricula of class IX and X. It should also be rechristened health and nutrition, he says. "Besides nutrition and health, the mental and psychological changes during adolescence should be part of the curriculum," he feels.
Shahin Ara Begum of the NGO, Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum, says boys and girls need not learn how to make love. "What they need is to be taught how to face an adverse situation and how to maintain sexual hygiene."
Jafrin Zebin Chowdhury, communications officer at UNICEF, Bangladesh, says the curriculum for sex education should be formulated keeping in mind Bangladeshi culture and the socio-religious context. "Ignorance and superstition are two major problems here. They get reflected in people's sexual behavior too."
The silence on the part of Bangladesh's policymakers is making many wonder when, if ever, sex education will be included in school curricula. And for how long the young generation will have to pay the price for lack of knowledge.