Safety in knowledge

Ahead of World Aids Day, DNA looks at how the ‘life skills’ being taught in schools and colleges are helping youngsters come to terms with their sexuality and helping them make informed choices about their life and health

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Safety in knowledge


A snazzy mobile phone in hand, and surrounded by eager friends, he shows them an SMS; nudges and smirks abound. "It's a joke," he says about the content, adding, "just call me a 16-year-old" because as much as he likes to be "cool" among friends, he's scared his parents may take away his phone if they find out what he's using it for. "The phone's to stay in touch," he says casually. The sexual undertone of the SMS is difficult to hide, and that's just one example of the "sexually aware" generation.

Times have changed, and drastically so. Information, of any kind, is freely available and is catering to various needs and it's all out there on the Web. Teens are walking around with smart phones that give them easy access to "everything".

Yet, many in society believe that educating the youth about sex will simply "corrupt young minds". Today, youngsters have more exposure than ever before. In such a scenario avoiding a topic like sex will only create an imbalance, because as much as we want to believe that it is good to protect our children, we are only doing the opposite. Ignorance isn't bliss.

Back in 2007, when the introduction of sex education was proposed in the country, as an initiative launched by the National AIDS Control Organisation to protect secondary and senior secondary school students in the age group of 15 to 17 from Aids and exposure to drugs, Karnataka was one of the states that opposed it. Then chief minister HD Kumaraswamy even voiced his objections against sex education saying that it could be perceived as "anti-culture" and "anti social".

Then minister for Primary and Secondary Education, Basavaraj Horatti, announced that children would be imparted "life skills" instead of "sex education".

Fast forward to the present, and yes, school and pre-university (PU) students are being taught "life skills". Academic institutions are building a platform, a forum for young adults to understand the basics of "procreation" too. Interestingly, they have "out-sourced" this training.

One of the key players in the training is Enfold Proactive Health Trust, a registered trust founded by two gynaecologists, Dr Sangeetha Saksena and Dr Shaibya Saldanha. "We got several cases of botched up abortions; young girls who were pregnant; teenagers, young couples who had difficulty in consummating of marriage because of a complete lack of sexual knowledge; or fear associated with sex." That's when they thought: "Instead of recuperative work, why not work at prevention".

The focus was "on prevention and promotion of better healthcare and we started sessions on Human Sexuality and Life Skills". Since 2002, they have reached out to over 35,000 students, around 1,000 teachers and even parents.

"We take a class for parents first, to let them know what we are talking about so that there is synergy between what children talk about at home and what they learn in school," says Dr Saldanha, adding that now they are also into, "training trainers because it is impossible to talk to everybody, so we do a lot of work in training them on how to speak to children about emotional and sexual health".

There are several schools and colleges they work with; Inventure Academy on Whitefield-Sarjapur Road is one of them. "We have life skill classes beginning from grade 1 up to grade 6," says counsellor E Venmal. Topics involve how to take care of ones' body, personal hygiene, body image and self-esteem, how to handle teasing and bullying, personal safety and the difference between good and bad touch. In higher grades, they also talk about puberty and what changes it brings in girls and boys.

"This is a platform for children to understand differences and also creates awareness among them," says Venmal, who feels that while information is freely available, "these classes open an avenue where the children can get their questions answered".

Growing up and having someone to talk about physical changes helps children express themselves and also makes them aware of the dangers that await them in the big bad world. Most schools and colleges that have sexuality education — called life skills — have realised the importance of equipping children with information.

It would be silly to assume children do not know much, as Dr Saldanha says she has observed a change in the kind of questions children ask. "Now students of class three give me porn sites, and the sorts of questions we receive in class five or six are something we would expect from students of class nine or ten."

Children are exposed to a lot more through various media, be it advertisements, films, or the Internet. However, there is also a strong sense of "embarrassment and shame" that most facilitators face when they first introduce the subject. "Children often say, 'we don't want to know about these things'." While curiosity is high, they feel ashamed to acknowledge that they want to know about sex.

"They may call it 'gross' but when we are talking, they are listening intently at the same time pretending they are not listening," Dr Saldanha says. "Teenage boys are restless and eager to know about sex," says Manjula, a counsellor with St Joseph's Indian High School. She says, "They are easily attracted to porn, and get distracted, which affects their studies." She says that after the life skill classes, "the boys are able to get answers to their questions and there is a platform and forum where they can talk about 'this stuff'."

"Questions that are asked in these sessions vary — some want to know about whether oral sex or anal sex can make one HIV positive," she says. While boys want to know a lot about sex itself, girls often have more emotional issues. Citing an example she says, she is often asked by girls, "Should I have sex with my boyfriend if he asks me to? When is it OK to say no?"
"Girls have huge issues, not just about premarital sex but ways of being safe," says Dr Saldanha. Both boys and girls have a "huge amount of concern about breaking up and how to recover from it", she says.

As a facilitator and sex educator, Dr Saldanha feels that, "somewhere, as parents of the present generation, we are not adequately prepared as role models because we have not faced the sort of things children face today", and hence, "we don't have answers for them". She is candid in admitting that many children already know this so, "they don't try to ask".

Simple examples would be: "Everyone has a boyfriend in class and I don't", or "I am really ugly to look at". Dr Saldanha says, "How do you talk to parents when they go ballistic when their child says she wants to wax or tweak her eyebrows; they say not yet." There is a lack of space where parents can be in tune with their child's emotional side.

However, the good news is that parents are talking more to their children. Comparing girls of today and a decade ago, Dr Saldanha says of awareness among 7th standard girls: "Earlier, when I asked them how many of their mothers have spoken to them about periods, two to three would raise their hands, but now almost 40  per cent put up their hands. That is really nice."
Some colleges like Christ University or Mount Carmel College have courses for PU students. However, most colleges feel such courses are better off taught in school.

Elina Louis, a 1st PU student at Christ  says, "We are already aware of most of what is taught." But she was quick to add that it was good that such a course was there as she believed it could help those "still unaware".
While the programme is aimed at creating awareness, counsellors say the role doesn't end there, "These young adults are better equipped to make the right choices and know where to reach out when issues of relationships arise," says Louis.

Parents, though, need to re-adjust to new realities, or as Dr Saldanha says, "they know certain things happen, but they are scared that if they acknowledge that their kids have girlfriends or boyfriends then the kids will run away or elope". Currently, parents are "not sure how to manage morals", she says. Parents get so stuck up with academics and extra curricular activities that they don't look at the emotional aspect of the child.

Outsourcing these "life skills" is to everyone's benefit. "Girls freely talk if there are outside facilitators who won't judge them based on their questions; there is more openness and a comfort level," says Subhashini, counsellor, Mount Carmel College.

Dr Saldanha agrees, adding, "Teachers are advised to take training on sexuality education, but they are already over-burdened with pupil evaluation, and it wouldn't be fair to pile this on them."

Since the subject is still a bit "touchy", facilitators take one class every week and start with general topics like understanding the body, how it functions, and then how prolonged exposure to TV and videogames can affect the brain and body. The third class would be understanding bullying, teasing, understanding emotions and expressing emotions, how to handle anger and then personal safety; being safe for yourself emotionally and physically, and that also includes sexually. These would be for younger classes.

In higher classes, it will be defining puberty, what is growing up, why do you have fights with friends and parents, why are friends important, how they pressurise you into doing things you don't want to do, dealing with relationships. From class eight up to college it is relationships.

And for all those who think such concepts are unnecessary in our cultured land, read what a 16-year-old had to say: "This knowledge will only help us make a balanced choice." One 17-year-old, said, "My parents can't tell me when to or not to have sex, but making me aware of the consequences, they are telling me how my life will look depending on what choices I make now."

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