When Union Minister of Health made some statements about sex education in schools to be culturally sensitive ensuring that crudity and inappropriate graphics be kept out, predictably the social media erupted in anger and puns. So we had some funny jokes on twitter and a lot of ranting on FB. Are we still discussing ‘culture’ in the same breath as sex education in the 21st century in this country? Apparently we are as we also discuss gender bias, female foeticide and child marriages which should have got edged out on their own if education was indeed the tool that led to a progressive mindset. India is a country of disparities. Not only do we have many religions, languages and cultures rubbing shoulders with each other and living in a sort of uncomfortable communion but we also are straddling the old with the new in more senses than one.
How many of you remember your sex education classes from way back in school? I do. I didn’t have any! I studied in one of the premier schools of Bombay. What I do remember is the uncomfortable silence and nudging that we all faced when we studied human reproductive systems as a part of our ICSE curriculum. Our biology teacher, a very strict lady, before she began the class started with the warning that any child who sniggered, laughed or asked ‘inappropriate’ questions would be dealt with strictly. Thereafter, the discourse was an exercise in vain as the boys and girls struggled to keep their eyes glued to the blackboard hoping that the period ended faster. Did we feel exposed or shamed in some manner? Yes, we all did. It was terribly embarrassing, and I am very sure that we did not pick up any knowledge then. Of course, in those days of no internet, our sources of information were limited and confined to ‘dirty’ magazines or chit-chat with friends.
I can safely say that most of us could not breathe the word ‘sex’ in front of our parents let alone ask any questions that usually baffle adolescents. It certainly has changed in one generation because both my husband and I have made an effort to be as open as possible with our children and answer their questions in the most age-appropriate way possible. That is not to say that it was easy getting rid of the cobwebs from our own minds. I must say that our exposure to literature on this subject, discussions with other parents and exposure in general has helped. We are mindful of the fact that parents are not the only source of information for the youngsters today; they never were. By becoming clammed up and uncomfortable, we are cutting off their access to one of the most accurate and supportive sources. But I know a lot of parents in my age group who are extremely uncomfortable in discussing sex with their children. After all, many of us still carry our conservative mindsets no matter how many large cities and continents we may leave a footprint in.
So, in a way, the word ‘culture’ will always continue to be invoked in the same breath as the word sex in India for a long time to come. Even though we all recognize the importance of teaching about safe sex to our children, no one wishes to handle the hot potato. So the parents pass the buck to the school and the teachers to do the needful. The teachers of course come from among us. They are extremely embarrassed to handle these sensitive topics among boisterous teens. Hence this ‘culture’ raises its ugly head again. The Health Minister despite being a doctor also comes with the same ‘cultural’ baggage and starts viewing this information from the prism of cultural suitability.
I think the only way to handle this issue is by first admitting that it is a cultural issue in our country to openly talk about sex. It is another matter that double entendres, heaving bosoms and inappropriate lyrics along with bawdy comedy is the order of the day. Innuendo is fine but never a direct approach. Thus, the Education Department needs to first address this issue of embarrassment. Clearly, they cannot do anything about how parents interact with their own children. But what they can do is train teachers or use professional counselors in schools especially when they handle these sensitive topics. There are teaching aids and methods in which you can speak to children in a manner which conveys information that they must have.
Separate sessions for boys and girls help. This enables the children to ask questions in a more comfortable environment. Other relevant material like literature and online material can be shared with the children for additional reading. And, this has not happened so far in schools but perhaps a session can be held by the Counselors to enable parents to cope with their own confusion and also aid them in the approaches they can use to discuss these topics with their children. Information like appropriate reading material and books can also be shared with parents.
Hopefully, a slow and systematic approach will ensure that our children will got well-rounded education from their schools. In times when the world struggles with deadly diseases like HIV, AIDS, STDs etc., it will be criminal not to let our youngsters have the relevant information from the most reliable sources – their schools!
Let’s bring the elephant in the room — culture on the table and approach it heads on!
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