Who’s to blame when women aren’t aware of how their bodies function?
I live in India — a country with 1.38 billion people. With its current population growth rate, India is all set to become the world’s most populous country by 2027. In addition, 19.6% of the world’s adolescent population lives in India. These statistics highlight the importance of specifically addressing the healthcare needs of this susceptible age group. However, not a single person in my friend circle has ever had sex education included in their school or college curriculum.
Talking about sex in India is like wanting your parents to die so you could inherit their property.
No, it is actually worse than that.
Wanting your parents to die makes you greedy and selfish. But talking about sex makes you a depraved, immoral person who has no place in society. Things are worse if you’re a woman wanting to know about the birds and the bees. No wonder everyone is desperate to avoid the shame.
In the past few years, governments have struggled with including sex-ed in schools. But discussions on adolescent sex education in India tend to be fueled by religious, social, and cultural values while receiving scant scientific attention. As this 2015 study published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry suggests, “The complex emotional state in which youth find themselves in, stigma surrounding matters of a sexual nature in the Indian society and widespread gender inequality faced makes it increasingly challenging for adolescents to attain the knowledge they need.”
This causes Indian adolescents to misinterpret the main health issues they are vulnerable to, including several negative sexual and reproductive health outcomes, such as early or closely spaced pregnancy, unsafe abortions, sexually transmitted infection, and sexual violence.
Talking about sex makes you a depraved, immoral person who has no place in society.
My first brush with the concept of sex was when I was thirteen and read a Sidney Sheldon novel. It was a shocking revelation, but it gave me a vague idea of how things are supposed to work. Over time, through various books and movies, I gathered all the information I needed to know, at least on the most basic level.
Sadly, this wasn’t the case with my friend, Payal. The name I used is fake to protect her privacy. The story, however, is not. Payal called me a few weeks ago. I knew she was crying the moment she said “Hello”.
I asked her if everything was okay. She said it wasn’t, and went on to explain how she had sex with her boyfriend about 45 days ago. After 15 days, she started bleeding, but it was within just 20 days of her previous period. She mentioned that her menstrual cycle was fairly regular, and so, was tensed about the untimely period.
I asked her if she took an emergency contraceptive, to which she replied yes. She also told me her boyfriend ejaculated inside of her.
I sighed and told her since she had already gotten her period once, there were very low chances that she was pregnant. But only a doctor can be 100% sure at this point. I shared what I knew about emergency contraceptives — that they have hormone inhibitors that mess up with the period cycle. A delayed and irregular period are common side effects.
She still sounded worried when she mumbled a weak “Okay”.
After I’d consoled her, I requested her never to have sex without some protection. Aside from the risk of pregnancy, there can be several other complications.
This caught her attention and she immediately asked what possible risk there could be. I told her she could get an STI.
To my horror, not only was she unaware of what an STI was, she had no idea it was possible to get sick because of unprotected sex. Even after I explained all these, she still insisted that she wouldn’t let her boyfriend climax inside of her.
I was losing patience when I told her it doesn’t matter whether he ejaculates or not. She can still get an STI or she could get pregnant even if he just penetrates her for a single second without a condom.
“It’s THAT dangerous, do you get it?” I demanded.
“Oh, Ana, I am scared,” she started sobbing.
I bit my tongue to stop myself from saying, “You should be,” and told her it was okay. That the worst is over now. Since it’s been 45 days and she isn’t showing any symptoms, she should be pretty much fine. To be on the safe side, I urged her to get a pregnancy test done.
This seemed to horrify her because she said she could never go to the hospital. And if her parents find out, they would kill her.
I explained that she didn’t need to go to the doctor. She can just go to a medicine store and ask for a pregnancy test kit. I was surprised she wasn’t aware as there are several television advertisements about over-the-counter pregnancy test kits. I wondered how she hadn’t seen them.
She assured me she had. But she’d also seen advertisements of contraceptive pills and I’d just told her they are bad for health.
I had to clarify that they aren’t “bad for health” per se, but they cause hormonal imbalances and have several side effects. So, they should be taken as infrequently as possible — maybe not more than 4–5 times in a woman’s lifetime.
She wasn’t convinced. After she hung up, I stood there for a long time after, gaping at my phone’s screen. Payal believed that morning-after pills served the same purpose as birth-control pills. I sent her several links differentiating between the two, but she didn’t reply to my messages.
It would be an understatement to say that I was shocked. It was beyond my comprehension that someone who indulged in premarital sex had been so irresponsible as to not make themselves aware of the risks involved.
Discussions on adolescent sex education in India tend to be fueled by religious, social, and cultural values while receiving scant scientific attention.
Now, coming to the pertinent question: Why is sex education important, especially in India?
Because this friend of mine wasn’t a naive teenager who still believed in unicorns and Santa Claus. She is a 27-year-old working woman who had the internet and almost every resource at her disposal as I did.
And even then,
- She was unaware of the dangers of unprotected sex,
- She had never heard the term STI,
- She had no clue about the consequences of taking emergency contraceptives,
- She believed that one needed parental permission to get a pregnancy test done,
- She was oblivious to the existence of over-the-counter pregnancy test kits, and
- She preferred taking emergency contraceptives over and over again, rather than simply asking her boyfriend to use a condom.
And this is the single most important reason why I think it is high time that we introduce something as basic as sex education in our country of 1.38 billion people. Sex education can not only improve the standard of living, but it can actually save the lives of so many people who spend their entire lives in ignorance. According to a report by UNESCO:
- Sex education increases young people’s knowledge and improves their attitudes related to sexual and reproductive health and behaviors.
- It does not increase sexual activity, sexual risk-taking behavior, or STI/HIV infection rates.
- Sex education programs that promote abstinence as the only option have been found to be ineffective in delaying sexual initiation, reducing the frequency of sex, or reducing the number of sexual partners. Programs that combine a focus on delaying sexual activity with other content are effective.
- Sex education has the most impact when school-based programs are complemented with the involvement of parents and teachers, training institutes, and youth-friendly services.
Sex education can not only improve the standard of living, but it can actually save the lives of so many people who spend their entire lives in ignorance.
To bring about such change, the first step that needs to be taken is normalizing sex and not treating it as taboo. Instead of something that is only talked about behind closed doors, sex education should be treated like a vital toolkit for survival, the seeds of which should be sown at home.
Yes, I am talking about strict and rule-abiding Indian parents giving up the euphemisms, sitting their children down and telling them in no unclear words what is what and which goes where. And what happens if something is not put over it when this goes inside that.
Focusing on abstinence and holding on to your virginity as if it’s the only testament to our “Indian values” is still fine. Depriving children of information that could potentially save their lives is not.