CHENNAI: Most of us have learned about sexual health and the reproductive systems under a stringent and controlled environment — no laughing, no questions, no looking at each other, no whispering lest you want your parents to be called. So many rules are enforced on curious minds in a classroom that often the fear of getting caught is of greater importance than the matter at hand. This, with the stigma of even saying words pertaining to a sexual context, has led to a broken sexual education system, one that skirts around the important topic, rather than addresses it head-on.
“Sexual education is taught like a textbook subject. Children are given no proper exposure or revelations towards the subject. This is even worse when it comes to schools based in villages. Some girls don’t even know why they mature, or why they menstruate. This leads to children being surprised by things later in their life,” begins Sathish Kumar, an educator in Erode district and an advocate for a more comprehensive sexual education system.
What’s not working
Before his promotion to a principal, Sathish did his best to normalise the subject among students, even counselling some when they approached him personally. As a teacher-turned-principal, Sathish has witnessed the shortcomings of the system, as well as the consequences of poor sexual education. “When we were younger, the adolescent age was 15-16 years old, but this is slowly reducing to the age of 10-12 because of the media the children of now are exposed to. Without proper guidance, they look for answers elsewhere and learn inaccurately.
And media such as pornographic videos are available to them. So, they watch them, exaggerate to their friends and the misinformation spreads,” he observes. There is more that has changed in society recently, he adds, quoting the example of more open cases of same-sex attraction and previously lesser-known sexualities and genders. Unfortunately, several teachers are not very well-versed in these concepts, many not even knowing the difference between sexuality and gender.
But what can we do about it? According to Sathish, the problem also lies in attributing marks to the subject. “I think children in classes 8 and 9 should be taught this but as an extra subject. It should be compulsory but not count towards their percentage,” he opines. But his wishes have limitations as well. Discussing genders and sexualities in a society as it is currently may raise a lot of opposition and teachers may be reported but, at the same time, everyone should be aware of these topics. So, perhaps, it would be ideal currently if these were a part of the textbook knowledge, for now, he concludes.
Changing the mould
Sathish was curious to learn more about how to tackle issues like these that would affect his students, so when he came across the Population Foundation of India’s adolescent health platform Educately, he decided to explore it further. The platform offered a course called ARSH (Adolescent Reproductive and Sexual Health) for You in which Sathish found many methods and topics that could be useful to the educators of Indian schools. “The course was very informative and not just with theories like in books and blogs, but activities, how to respond to the children and discussing topics such as masturbation and premarital sex. It also had case studies, something I had not come across. I was able to connect these with one or two kids in my school already at that stage.
For example, if a child is distracted and not speaking to someone, or if children make fun of a transgender person, how to deal with these situations,” he shares, adding that the state syllabus does not even contain 20 per cent of what was included in the ARSH for You course. The course introduces teachers to new approaches. While he mentioned that speaking of a lot of these topics is currently difficult in large groups, one can do so indirectly through these activities in class. “I think a few teachers from each school can be nominated to study the course and apply the changes in class. Since the course is free, fees should not be an issue,” he suggests. Sathish is one of over 600 educators to benefit from the platform.
The Population Foundation of India’s work with young people highlighted the need for a knowledge hub for all issues on adolescence and that is how Educately came about, says Tejwinder Singh Anand, joint director, Communications. “When children’s questions go unanswered due to widespread taboos, it prompts them to find other resources which may be inaccurate. We also realised the role of educators in this process. The ARSH for You course explores how to provide the correct age-appropriate information and strengthen delivery. The idea is to help teachers give information more effectively and sensitively,” he elaborates. The ARSH for You training consists of four modules — gender and identity; growth and change; relationships; and conception and contraception. Courses are available online for free in English and Hindi. Maybe with one step towards bettering our school systems, we could better the future for posterity.