Chennai: Are we doing better in terms of responsible sex education in schools?

While NGOs have been working towards accessible and comprehensive sex-ed for students and adults as well, they are but a drop in the sea given their scale of operations and the gap that exists 
Read on to find out more | (Pic: EdexLive)
Read on to find out more | (Pic: EdexLive)

On a regular Tuesday morning, the conference halls at Asha Nivas were abuzz with activity. Amid workshops and lectures, members of the Centre for Women’s Development and Research (CWDR) gathered to map a future for their work in the region of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR).

After two pandemic years and several government-orchestrated restrictions later, the network was slowly limping back to normalcy, with uncertainty writ large in their agenda. They had to start from scratch, it looked like. And it all came back to the state of sex education in schools today. 

Children at The School KFI are introduced to safety education — good touch-bad touch, physical safety — in Class II. A formal sex education programme starts in Class V and is carried through till the child leaves school.

Besides exploring menstruation, contraception, consequences of sexual involvement and prevention of sexual abuse, the programme also engages students in the matters of attraction, gender stereotypes, masturbation, ‘dirty words’, sex and marriage. Boys and girls are encouraged to join in and learn in a mutually enriching environment. While such a programme has clearly had a great impact on the students, this is far from the norm in schools in the city. 

Many private schools have a two-day sex-ed programme for students of Classes IX and X and end it right there. Often, this is either restricted to the girl students or held separately for girls and boys. While these students do have far greater avenues of access and information (which are not always accurate and healthy) otherwise, it is the government schools that miss out on such an effort all together.

As per the mandate, government schools are required to only put up pictures and information on safety education all around the school campus; what some schools do beyond this is of their own volition, informs a government primary school headmistress. 

A voluntary vocation
Quite a few schools take the initiative to engage NGOs working in SRHR. CWDR has been holding extensive sexuality education programmes for years. So has organisations like Bloom Trust, Asha Nivas, Pasumai Trust, Thozhamai and Mottukal. But, it has not been without enormous challenges. “When I first started sex-ed classes in a government school, the next day I had parents lining up to ask me if I was teaching their children to have sex,” recounts KR Renuka, executive director of CWDR.

A few teachers who did their part were also subject to insult and censure. It was by informing parents that children are being taught about the consequences of ‘fooling around’ that they were able to win them over.

Slowly, parents started sending their kids to these programmes in the hopes of keeping them out of trouble. But the more these organisations engaged with students, the more they realised the disturbing dearth of information and awareness. 

“Children don’t even wear underwear to school. If they get their first period while in school, it’s the teachers who fetch these things and help them. Because the parents are often daily wage labourers who leave home early in the morning and have little time to instruct the children on these subjects,” Vanitha, programme coordinator at CWDR, notes. 

Basics and beyond
Programmes like this cover everything from how to keep their private parts clean, how to wash underwear, how to use different menstruation products, the side effects of menstruation, need for a healthy diet, to busting superstitions around menstruation and puberty, teaching them to dispel the shame forced upon the process, and the need to get comfortable with one’s own body.

That menstruation and the female anatomy, in general, is considered taboo is one of the reasons children are unable to register that they are being sexually abused; there are numerous accounts of teenagers getting pregnant even when they barely comprehend what sex entails.

Renuka recalls a child who was being sexually abused by her father from when she was two years old. “When she was older, she tried talking about it to her friends. They told her that fathers are like that. None of them knew better,” she points out.

While this is the extreme manifestation of such ignorance, the lack of open and honest conversation around sexuality and reproduction has many people living through life without any understanding of their body (believing the vagina and urethra have a common opening), or developing a certain level of disgust for everything below the belt.

“Children tell us that they don’t go to the toilet when they have their period because they find their blood disgusting to touch or clean. Because of the idea of impurity, we associate with it,” says Vanitha. She has had women, after having had children, confess that they don’t know what the ‘wings’ in the sanitary napkins are for.

For this reason, Vanitha begins all her classes with a model of the female reproductive system and makes sure that every child gets comfortable looking at and touching them. It’s only by the third session that she managed to get through to everyone, she says. 

Of policy and provisions
While generations of parents have passed on the torch of ignorance to their children, teachers are no different. Renuka recalls being asked “Enna neenga vaai koosama itha pathi pesite poreenga?” by one of the teachers after her sex-ed class. The norm, until then, had been to let the students read the portions on menstruation themselves.

In 2017, a child in Pudukkottai died of suicide, reportedly, after her teacher shamed her for staining her clothes (and the bench) with period blood in front of her fellow students. “Teachers consider this a matter of intimacy that should not be talked about. It’s the teachers who we need to train first, make them comfortable with the subject, to begin with,” she says. 

While NGOs have been working towards accessible and comprehensive sex-ed for students and adults as well, they are but a drop in the sea given their scale of operations and the enormous gap they are trying to fill. Even that has been made more difficult by the recent Central government orders that have introduced many a restriction upon NGOs. CWDR and the organisations in its small network gathered together last week to discuss the way forward amid such constraints.

“Our network was working well for three years. Then, because of the Centre’s amendments, none of us is in a position to network with each other. The very fact that one NGO cannot transfer money to another NGO for network purposes affects all our work. Many of us have still not been able to renew our FCRA licence (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act). It should have come by March, now they are saying it will come in June but we don’t know if it will. Till we get the renewal, we can’t use the money we’ve already received so far. If we don’t get the renewal, having the money in our accounts will also become illegal. So, how do we keep up our work against all these challenges,” asks Renuka. 

While the organisations are still working their way through the constraints, the only way to effectively bridge the gap is to make the process streamlined through the government and make sex education not only mandatory but robust in all schools.

Government infrastructure should go beyond providing a sex education syllabus and material and fulfil the practical needs of women and girls, points out Renuka. “It must start with clean toilets in government schools; many children don’t use the toilet while in school because of how dirty it is.

"Used sanitary napkins are simply tossed aside in one corner of the campus; over time, there is a smelly mountain of napkins rotting away near the toilets, discouraging students from using the place further. A government initiative brought incinerators into many schools and in several public spaces but students and teachers barely know how to use them. Children tend to stuff it with the used napkins, rendering them unusable,” she details.

The upkeep of public toilets is another vital component, she notes. It is no secret that public toilets are often too dirty and too dilapidated to use. They have little to no light facility, making them far more unsafe.

Yet, for many people living in slums and colonies, this is the only option. Pointing out how much policymakers don’t take into account the needs of women, Renuka recalled how women’s access to public toilets was cut off during the lockdown. It was after many requests that the public restrooms were opened up again.

Another vital requirement is the availability of clean water in these establishments. Like the many toilets constructed under the Swachh Bharath scheme, many public toilets are left without a functional water connection; this barely gets addressed in time. 

Period poverty is yet another matter of policy interest that the government has accorded little attention. Though government schools are supposed to have napkins available for their students, it is made possible only through the benevolence of a few teachers who spend their money on a need-only basis. It’s important to make biodegradable and reusable napkins (perhaps menstrual cups too) available for free in schools and through Public Distribution System shops.

“It is only in the recent planning commission that for the first time the government consulted several organisations like us for public policy relating to women and SRHR. This has us hopeful about future efforts,” says Renuka. There’s much to be done, anyway. 

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