TARSHI (Talking about Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues) is a Delhi-based NGO that works on sexuality with an affirmative and rights-based approach. It runs an infoline on topics related to sexual and reproductive health, HIV, contraceptive choices, sexual and gender identities, violence, safety and pleasure. The organisation is also involved in training, advocacy and research. In light of the ongoing discussion around sexuality education and more specifically in relation to this post, I interviewed Prabha Nagaraj, Director of Programmes at TARSHI. A transcript:
1. In your opinion, how should a comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) programme be structured? What are the important characteristics of such a programme? Are there any countries in the world which provide a role model?
There is no ‘one size fits all’. And it is not easy or even advisable to apply a ready-made curriculum from another country (or for a multicultural, multilingual country like ours, even from one part of the country) to another. The din around whether there should be sexuality education or not has prevented a serious dialogue on what constitutes good quality CSE, when the right age is to start, who should be responsible for providing this education etc. We need to go beyond whether there should be CSE or not and have discussions with various stakeholders (parents, teachers, educationists, young people themselves, NGOs working with diverse audiences, policy makers, psychologists etc.) about what information and skills are essential for each age group, who should develop the material, who should provide the information, how will the teachers be trained, who will create the training material and programmes, will this be provided in class as a separate subject or integrated with all/specific subjects, will it be an extracurricular subject etc. Because these discussions have occurred in small pockets around the country, and mainly amongst educationists and policy makers (with little input from other stakeholders) we don’t see a nuanced understanding of the problem as it stands
In other words, a simplistic response would be to say that age appropriate CSE starting as early as possible and moving up in a graded manner would be ideal. But, this response does not convey the complexities involved in creating appropriate curricula for diverse groups.
2. What type of problems does the current AEP (Adolescent Education Programme) curriculum have?
The present revised curriculum is a marked improvement from the earlier one (that was withdrawn in 2008 I think). However, the language of the curriculum remains ambiguous and abstract thus possibly leading the facilitators who transact the curriculum to exacerbate young people’s confusions around sexuality issues. For example, there is no mention of what sex entails and this could be confusing. A mention in the section on conception is illustrative of this: “New life occurs when male (sperm) and female sex cells (ovum) unite at conception. At the time of conception the genes and chromosomes from the mother and father unite to form a unique individual with particular traits and characteristics”. The abstract language used will encourage facilitators in turn to talk in vague terms, leaving students to figure out on their own how this transpires. Also, given that sex finds mention within the section of conception locates it within the discourse of reproduction alone.
Also, the revised version of the curriculum remains exclusionary leaving out those who do not conform to stereotypical societal norms of sex, gender, sexual orientation and ability. The present curriculum contains a few illustrations that steer clear from any human anatomical representations against which people had expressed reservations earlier
3. What kind of training process should be in place for trainee teachers so that they can address CSE effectively?
Both trainee teachers and in-service teachers require training so that they can overcome their own discomfort and lack of complete information around these issues. In addition, they would need skills in conducting sessions in the classroom. Equally important would be training in a rights-based perspective that ensures that students are not given fear-based, abstinence-only kind of messages which ignore the reality of many of their lives and experiences. We feel that every training needs to have the following components:
a) Information (on why CSE is important, on the subject area i.e. anatomy, physiology, growing up changes in the body, emotional issues while growing up, relationships and attraction to people of other genders as well of one’s own gender, abuse, conception, contraception etc to name a few)
b) Skills (on providing information in a matter-of-fact, simple and non-fear-inducing manner, on keeping lines of communication open between the student and teacher so that the adults in young people’s lives can guide and assist them in times of trouble too)
c) Perspective (gender sensitive, rights based, sex affirming, queer sensitive etc.)
4. In the absence of sexuality education in schools, what can parents do to provide this for their kids? At what age should they start?
Ideally, parents need to start as early as possible. Providing CSE to toddlers does not mean one is teaching them about sex at that age but that they are taught to name their genitals for example, taught about private and public spaces, who can touch them on what parts of their bodies. It also involves the beginnings of gender-related messages and not feeding them stereotypes about what girls and boys, women and men can or cannot do. Parents get ample opportunities to bring up such topics as part of daily activities like bath time, watching TV etc so it does not have to be a formal ‘talk’ or lecture. This also conveys to children that they can talk to their parents about anything which is very important in protecting them from abuse as well as ensuring that as they grow up, they will continue to turn to their parents for information and guidance rather than to ill-informed peers or other unreliable sources.
5. Can you tell me a little about the other publications you have created for parents and teachers?
The Yellow Book is full of tips and tools, information and advice to help adults convey accurate information in the best possible way to their wards. It is divided into sections for parents of preschoolers, middle school and high school children with specific suggestions for each of these age groups. There is a fact-sheet section in the book that gives basic information on various topics including sexual abuse and information for parents of children with disabilities.
The Orange Book is a workbook with 28 exercises that teachers could do on their own and is meant to increase their level of comfort around CSE. Chapters address issues like why CSE, body image, self-esteem and decision-making among youngsters, basic concepts of gender and sexuality, information on anatomy, physiology, HIV and AIDS, issues around harassment and abuse, how to address sticky situations, prejudice, stereotyping, stigma and discrimination. It has basic information as well as exercises based on newspaper articles and real-life incidents to help teachers apply the ideas presented to their classroom interactions.
Both books have extensive web resources for those who would like to explore particular topics more in-depth.
Also, download the UNICEF concurrent evaluation of the Adolescent Education Programme.