It was the last day of fifth grade. There were rumors about an alleged sex education class taking place. We tried to stop our 12-year-old selves from giggling at the sound of the word sex. After our regular classes that day, we were led into two separate classrooms based on gender. Nervous yet excited, the girls shyly entered a classroom where our teacher was waiting for us with a packet of sanitary pads.
After explaining the menstrual cycle and demonstrating how to use sanitary napkins, we finally got to the meaty stuff: sex. She warned us that as girls we needed to be careful about how much time we spent with our male friends. Spending too much time with boys — especially if there was physical contact — could potentially get us pregnant and strip us of our worth in society. Unfortunately, the teacher took a moralistic approach rather than a biological one, emphasizing the value of abstinence over the basic knowledge of human anatomy — by the end of the talk, we all refused to even touch our male classmates for fear of becoming pregnant and even worse, committing a taboo.
Such is the nature of sex education in South Asia.
According to a report by the [United Nations] (http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/2013REPORT.PDF), 28.7 percent of women in India give birth to their first child before the age of 15. Yet reproductive health is only discussed behind closed doors — if it is talked about at all. Even in urban areas, sexual health is highly stigmatized; adolescents rarely have a talk about the birds and the bees at home
and sex education classes in schools are condemned by both parents and policy makers
. As a result, teenagers do not learn about the harsh consequences of teen pregnancy or the idea of family planning.
The continual [non-recognition]((https://www.thedailystar.net/opinion/society/why-marital-rape-still-legal-bangladesh-1438600) of marital rape in countries like India and Bangladesh is just one consequence of shying away from sex education in the name of culture. The lack of conversation about healthy sexual relationships, including consent, normalizes sexual abuse — from marital rape to violence against women — as it makes the [idea of consent alien] (https://thewire.in/gender/india-conversation-consent-marriage) to not just men but also women, who are not fully aware of their rights. Comprehensive sex education would teach young adults about topics such as sexual violence, the proper use of contraceptives, sexuality and the role of communication in healthy relationships.
The worst part, however, is the quality of sex education provided by schools — the few that even have it — and the moral lessons drilled into young adults through these sessions.
Sex education in most South Asian schools portray intercourse as a vulgar act that is to be practiced only after marriage and merely for reproduction — especially for women. Although some national curriculums cover family planning and the use of various contraceptives, there is an underlying implication that contraception should only be used by married couples. The concept of sex before marriage is presented as an obscene act which perpetuates the idea that one’s worth is inextricably linked to their virginity. In a patriarchal society like mine, it is women who become victims of this belief. This kind of sex education reinforces sexism by dehumanizing women and reduces their value to the virginal status of their hymens. Women are harshly judged for not being virgins — from their potential husbands to even their [gynecologists] (https://www.arre.co.in/gender/gynaecologists-india-sex-education-sex-polycystic-ovarian-syndrome/).
Moreover, the gendered approach to sex education creates a barrier between the genders, resulting in a feeling of otherness between men and women. The hostility and awkwardness between my male friends and me for a week after the sex education class perfectly illustrated this phenomenon. I was made to think that the onus of protecting my integrity and myself from getting pregnant lay in my hands and that I had to be responsible enough not to spend too much time with boys. This approach also deprives men of any knowledge about matters like menstruation, female sexuality, which are stigmatized and considered taboo. Women on their periods are not only embarrassed but also silenced. Men pride themselves on not acknowledging this natural phenomenon and they perceive as disgusting — so much so, that in some South Asian countries even movies about menstruation are banned by their censor board
This approach to sexual education also restricts people in terms of understanding their sexuality and gender. It completely neglects the presence of anyone who identifies outside of the male-female binary. Sex among the LGBTQ community is even more frowned upon and considered unnatural. The lack of awareness of the mere existence of a community restricts society from engaging in conversations about LGBTQ matters that could help foster understanding and empathy.
Comprehensive sex education is necessary for teenagers to debunk myths and fight baseless moral expectations set by society but it is also crucial for learning to respect each other’s bodies and agency.
Aasna Sijapati is Deputy Features Editor. Email her at email@example.com.*