How to talk about the birds and bees without offending

Though adolescence education is a part of the school curriculum, it faces a major hindrance in the form of objections from some community elders and parents who feel it will promote licentiousness among the children, said experts.

Incorporating the "cultural sensitivities" of people into adolescence education is necessary, but at the same time it is a topic that should be discussed by educators who are liked and trusted by the students so that they can feel free to share their doubts and queries on the subject, said experts at a seminar organised by three UN bodies -- UNFPA, Unicef and Unesco -- here on Friday.

According to Saroj Yadav, a professor with the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) who is in charge of the government's Adolescence Education Programme (AEP), most states have implemented it, except Gujarat and Maharashtra.

“Adolescence education should be culture specific and states have been asked to adapt it according to their regions. Teachers also need to be trained on how to impart the knowledge to children. The programme also needs assessment from time to time,” Yadav said.

Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, said the AEP, which is also called the Life Skills Education Programme, is “trying to evade confronting a very important aspect of human life” by terming it Life Skills Education Programme and not sex education. “Kids begin learning about sex at a much younger age these days, and due to the absence of organised knowledge there is trouble when they confront it practically,” she said.

She also said adolescence education should not just be about HIV/AIDS and population control, but also about “women empowerment, so that women are made aware about their bodies and sexuality”.

Voicing the concern of many of the participants, another speaker, Indirashekhar Mishra, general secretary All India Secondary Teachers Federation, said the AEP had “run into trouble” from a parliamentary committee.

He was referring to a Rajya Sabha committee, headed by M. Venkaiah Naidu of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), that has said the AEP was “a cleverly used euphemism whose real objective was to impart sex education to schoolchildren and promote promiscuity”. It also disapproved of the importance given to the National Aids Control Organisation (NACO) in the AEP, which was launched in 2005.

According to Mahinder C. Watsa, president of the Family Planning Association of India, young people should be involved in formulating the programme. He also said the adolescence education programme should be "backed up with counselling and therapeutic sessions" for the youth.

Watsa suggested that a box for questions should be kept whenever the subject is taught so that the youth can ask, without feeling embarrassed, questions about sex and sexuality and educators should address the queries freely.

He said the programme should impart knowledge about "what the young people want to know and not what we want to give them. The educators should not stick to anatomy and physiology, but be able to respond to the giggles and laughter of the youth, and answer their questions on masturbation, oral sex or the I-pill.

He also said "one should not hard sell HIV/AIDS in the programme, but soft-sell it to make it a success".

Earlier, the seminar, titled Expert Group Consultation on Cultural Relevance of the Adolescence Education, was addressed by Nesim Tumkaya, UNFPA representative, Warren Mellor, Unesco representative and Subhash Kuntia, joint secretary in the Ministry of Human Resource Development.

Tumkaya said adolescence education was an important subject as it concerned 30 percent of the population. "It gives voice to the youth to avoid unwanted sexual behaviour, develop their personality and help them pass the phase of transition in life, where they need guidance”, he said.

The issue of making the programme "culturally sensitive" was proving tough as there was no consensus on what is culturally sensitive, he added. "There are too many sensitivities."

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