[First published in Women's Web.]
When schools in Bangalore conducted surprise checks of the bags of students to see if they were bringing cell phones to school, they were in for a nasty surprise.
As this report in the Deccan Herald says, “In addition to cell phones, they found condoms, oral contraceptives, cigarettes, lighters and whiteners in the bags of students of grades 8, 9 and 10. To their credit, the school authorities handled the situation with maturity- instead of suspending the students, they informed the parents and/ or guardians and advised them to seek counselling for their wards.”
Schools, parents and society is shocked, but what is the real issue here?
People are, understandably shocked to find out that adolescents in the age group 12 to 15 years are potentially indulging in sexual intercourse. People largely fall into four camps–
- Those that say that today’s youth are morally degenerate, and call for lesser freedom and greater policing
- Those that recognise that if adolescents are indulging in sexual intercourse, it is good that they are using contraceptives which protect against both pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases
- Those that say that neither school authorities nor parents (and/ or guardians) have the right to check the contents of school bags, and that it constitutes a gross invasion of privacy
- But the largest camp is of parents of teenagers and pre-teenagers who are shaken up to find that adolescents of the same age as their own children are sexually active. Most of the people who fall into the earlier three camps are not themselves parents (or are parents of grown up children and so not directly affected), and therefore can take an intellectual/ moral stand.
Is my child also sexually active without me even suspecting it? This is the time for children to study- how do I prevent it from happening in my home? What can I do differently to ensure that my child confides in me? Are just some of the questions that they are plagued with.
We prefer to moralise and brush issues under the carpet
The main issue here is not one of morals- biology dictates that after attaining puberty, the body is ready to perform its reproductive functions. Sexual attraction to the same or opposite sex, curiosity about the sexual act, and the desire to experiment are all built into humans, and it is only social norms around virginity and fidelity that assigns moral values to sexual curiosity and sexual chastity. The larger issue, therefore, is the lack of formal sex education in schools and an environment where one can have healthy discussions about safe and unsafe sex at home.
As a nation, we like to pretend that if we ignore an issue, it will go away. Nowhere is that more evident than in case of matters pertaining to sex and relationships. We look away when children complain of being sexually abused by relatives and friends. We ignore the sexual, physical and mental abuse inflicted on women by their partners. We think that if we do not discuss sex, our children will remain ignorant of it. Nothing could be further from the truth, and children, adolescents, and vulnerable adults pay the price for this head in the sand approach.
We fail to teach our children about “good touch” and “bad touch” because we think they are too young to understand. Yet, children as young as three are victims of sexual abuse. The probability of preventing child sexual abuse, or at least nipping it before it goes too far, is increased if we provide the appropriate vocabulary to our children and create a non-judgmental space for them to articulate their concerns.
Women are forced to continue in abusive relationships, because of lack of support from families, friends and the larger community.
Formal sex education is such a necessity!
But perhaps the worst affected by this silence are the adolescents. At a time when they are naturally curious, there is great reluctance on the part of parents and teachers to discuss sex. Even the chapters on reproductive biology in text books are quicky glossed over, with no time given over to answering questions. In the absence of formal sex education, adolescents often turn to pornography or log onto online forums to seek answers to the questions they want to ask. This not only leaves them with incomplete information on contraception and safe sex, it occasionally compromises their safety and puts them in extremely vulnerable positions.
Formal sex education will, additionally, discuss consent. Bollywood movies glorify stalking behaviour and have heros who persist in “wooing” the heroine despite several rejections. An adolescent who learns about relationships through Bollywood movies cannot be blamed for thinking that “no” merely means “try harder next time”. However, once sex education is brought into the classroom, after screening videos like the ‘consent is like tea’ one there can be discussions on the nuances of consent. Adolescents of all genders will learn to draw lines and to respect the lines drawn by their partners. This cannot happen if sex is relegated to a dark and shameful corner of the room- the atmosphere in school and at home should be non-judgemental for adolescents to talk about the issues that they are perplexed by.
We need solution oriented thinking to make it safer and less traumatic to sex curious youngsters
Apart from knowing about consent and contraceptives, there is a third reason why it is critical to have honest and non-judgemental discussions with adolescents- the legal framework where even consensual sex with a minor can be treated as a criminal offence. The POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act, 2012 which was introduced to protect children from sexual abuse clearly defines a child as anyone below the age of 18, and clearly fixes the age of consent as 18 years. According to the provisions of the Act, anyone under the age of 18 cannot give consent, and therefore any act of sexual intercourse with or among adolescents is treated on par with rape.
This law is often misused by parents of minors to break up relationships by bringing a false charge of rape against the person with whom their daughter is in a consensual sexual relationship. Though these cases have been challenged in the court and the rate of acquittal is high it is still an extremely traumatic situation for both partners. The minor girl is branded as the victim of rape, and has to go through the trauma of repeated cross questioning. The male partner is branded a criminal, is often kept in police custody for a short or long period of time, and goes through a harrowing experience till acquittal.
In the absence of an environment where adolescents can freely discuss sexual relationships with non-judgemental adults, it is unlikely that they learn about the legal framework which criminalizes even consensual relationships.
It has to be recognised that older adolescents are curious about sex, and have the right to explore consensual sexual relationships. If the age of consent remains 18, not only is the sexual relationship being criminalised, the young woman will struggle to find access to support in case of an unwanted pregnancy. The only long term solution to this is to press for legal reform, so the age of consent is reduced from 18 to 16, so the POCSO act serves the purpose for which it was created- to protect minors, instead of enabling their criminalisation.
This incident has thrown up a number of issues that need to be discussed, and one hopes that instead of taking firm stands, the various stakeholders talk about themselves, and do what is best for adolescents.