Wednesday, April 04, 2007

My take on banning sex education

“Sex” is a dirty word in Maharashtra. “Sex Education” is even dirtier. Therefore, in its infinite wisdom, the Maharashtra government has decided that children should not be taught the “facts of life” in school. Last week, the state government banned sex education in all schools including those that follow the CBSE and ICSC syllabi. The cause of their ire was the CBSE textbook on sex education.

The government believes that “Indian values” are offended by the courses that give children basic information about human anatomy and physiology, about safe sex, dangers of infections, about AIDS, about other sexually transmitted diseases etc. No, our children must not be taught this in school, says the government. Should they be taught this at all? Apparently, that decision is left to the parents. Yet, most of us know that Indian parents, by and large, rarely discuss such matters openly with their children. So, if children are not taught in school, or at home, then they have no option but to discover the facts for themselves. So like previous generations, they will have to experiment, ask equally ill-informed peer and read whatever they can to find out these “facts of life”. Unlike their parents’ generation, they have many more avenues for information, particularly the Internet. And of course, they can also turn to the Kama Sutra or the sculptures in Khajurao that one presumes would not be considered contrary to “Indian values”.

While the subject of the ban was brought up in the Maharashtra state Assembly, rather predictably, by the Shiv Sena and its ally the Bharatiya Janata Party, who felt that the CBSE textbook on sex education should be banned, one of the organisations that campaigned for a ban on sex education is the Students Islamic Organisation of India (SIO), a group that would normally not be seen in the company of the saffron parties. In their press release welcoming the Maharashtra government’s decision, the SIO states, “This is the win (sic) of students and people, who are struggling to promote virtue and trying to make evil free society…This decision will save our young generation from being spoiled and going astray…it will save our society from going towards a valueless and vulgar culture”. It is evident that on this issue there is no communal divide.

The ban crept up on an unsuspecting public. Although groups like the SIO had issued statements, they found little response in the media. The government gave no indication that it had been considering such a step although the subject had come up because of a circular from the Centre recommending the introduction of sex education. Even if it was thinking about the issue, the state government does not seem to have consulted educationists, counselors, parents and others, people who are in regular touch with the younger generation. Had it taken the time to do so, it is possible that it would have paused.

At a time when India wants to project itself as this modern, growing world power, decisions like that of the Maharashtra government remind us that India continues to governed by people who equate modernity with promiscuity. It is these same people who oppose open debate, who will not allow freedom of expression (because it could hurt “Indian values”) and who support media censorship and bans. The attitude cuts across party lines.

Maharashtra is now gaining the dubious distinction of being a state that is not just losing out in the race for new industries because of its power crisis but is also forfeiting its historical legacy of being a state with a liberal and progressive culture by turning into one that is obscurantist and ultra-conservative. In the last years, books have been banned, particularly any book that mentions Shivaji, bar dancers have been banned, movie channels on television have been banned, and now sex education is banned. The circle, it would seem, is complete. Our politicians seem to believe that if you ban something, the problem will disappear. In the information age, when what you need to know is available at the click of a mouse, how many channels of information will you seek to block?

How children should be taught about sex and whether they should be taught is a matter that ought not to be decided by politicians who are only interested in pleasing certain constituencies. This is a serious question and should be the subject of debate and discussion amongst educationists and parents who deal on a daily basis with children and their questions. Ask anyone who has taught adolescents and they will tell you that they need no prompting to ask questions about sex. Ask women’s groups who have worked with young girls and they will tell you how little these women know about their bodies and themselves and how that increases their vulnerability. Schools are the ideal places where at least the basic questions that children have on sex and related issues ought to be answered. Why is that so wrong? How can knowledge corrupt young minds? Such a regressive attitude, which wants to limit and control knowledge and to stem curiosity, is not just anti-education, but also anti-democracy.

(Edited version appeared in The Hindu, Op-ed page, April 2, 2007

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