Indian teachers get used to talking about sex

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"It was funny and a little bit uncomfortable, but it broke the ice for discussion." Grace (19) recalls how her teacher at a small private school taught her class how to use a condom.

"No one dared to admit whether they had sexual experience or not. But we had some general discussion about condoms, sex and relationships. Our teacher showed us you can be comfortable with the topic."

Grace's experience with sexual health education is an exception in India, as she found out after moving to Mumbai for college. Coming from a small city in the south of the country, she expected her college mates in the centre of Bollywood to be far more at ease with the topic of sexuality.

The opposite was true: most youngsters had learned about reproduction and HIV in school, but discussion about sexual acts or feelings was never encouraged.

"I didn't know anything in school," says Rishi (20). "I got a girlfriend at 16, but I didn't even know where the female body part is exactly, and how it works. Whatever I learnt later came, to be honest, from porn," he says shyly. "I went to a boy's school," he adds by way of explanation.

"The state of sex education in India has much improved in the past five to ten years," says child psychologist Shakhar Seshadri, who has been advocating a more 'rights-based' approach to it. "The Dutch example is rights based," he explains.

"Contrary to popular arguments, there is international evidence that this approach actually postpones the age of first sexual activity by two years. We do not encourage children to experiment with sex. We just promote a happy, healthy and responsible attitude towards it."

Four years ago, a new sexual health education programme promoted by the Indian government for use in government schools, which was developed by UNICEF, was banned by six states.

Opponents said the content was too explicit and no teacher would be willing to use it. Some also said it wasn't suited to Indian culture. Children should merely be taught to abstain from sex before marriage and be faithful to their spouses after marriage, they argued.

The Central Board of Secondary Education, which recommends the programme, took out words like arousal, masturbation, ejaculation and intercourse, and diagrams and posters showing the change from puberty to adulthood.

The arguments goes on, but the opposition has become smaller and smaller, says Dr Seshadri. "Parents are more and more informed. The average middle class family has a TV, and the wish for children to process the information and images from television in a healthy way makes the rights-based approach more acceptable to parents."

Dr Seshadri has developed a series of workbooks for school children between the age of 8 and 14, which is being used by several private schools across the country.

He is talking about including children between 4 and 6 years old as well - just like in the Dutch 'Spring Butterflies' programme. "For them it would be about communication, naming different body parts, and talking about good and bad experiences."

Also teachers and parents will need to learn how to communicate, he says. "The resistance to the government programme mainly came from the great discomfort amongst teachers, also in terms of language. They are not used to talking about these things."

He doesn't agree with the argument that sex education is fit for the west, but doesn't belong in Indian culture. "The only issue in India is the naive believe that children are asexual beings. And the denial that young people do experiment with sex outside an institution such as marriage. Which they do."