Greetings, MSP readers! I just returned from 3 weeks in India, and I can’t wait to go back! While I was mostly occupied with sightseeing and attending talks at a conference in my home discipline, folklore, I was also attuned to what was going on with sex education and sexuality in India. Here are some interesting facts that I learned while there.
Sex education is not universally offered in Indian schools. In fact, it’s difficult to generalize about anything in India. While most people speak Hindi, English, or both, many people belong to ethnic or tribal groups that have their own languages and cultural norms. India has 28 states and 7 territories, and these places are culturally, environmentally, religiously, and linguistically diverse.
When I informally spoke with Indian people about sex education, I received mixed information. In larger cities such as Chennai (Madras) and Delhi, peer education has been used in high schools to help convey information about sex, pregnancy, and transmission of disease. Troupes of student-actors and volunteers present short plays and skits to help the youth understand the risks of being sexually active.
In contrast, many of the smaller and less-developed areas lack institutionalized sex education. While sex is being increasingly depicted in film and TV, there is little access to reliable information about sex. College students I spoke with in the north and north-east of the country said that there was no sex education in schools, and young people were left to figure it out for themselves (or not). When I picked up a newspaper at the airport in Guwahati (the capital of the state of Assam, and the gateway to the north-east), I read a front-page article summarizing a UNICEF report: adolescents in Assam are vulnerable to sexual trafficking, child marriage, teenage pregnancy, HIV/AIDS transmission, and sexual abuse/violence. Related health problems such as widespread anemia are indirectly affecting the sexual vulnerability of the youth, as anemia contributes to maternal mortality rates. The government officials quoted in the newspaper article seemed interested in distributing this information to adolescents and their parents in order to combat these problems, but otherwise, they did not seem to have a clear plan of action.
One of the reasons for lack of widespread and consistent sex education is that the prevailing expectation is still that people will remain virgins until they marry. I was assured that nobody actually inspects the white sheets from the wedding bed anymore… but the expectation of virginity remains. Here, I sense a parallel to the U.S., wherein many groups (religious, ethnic, and other) believe that young people should remain virgins until they marry, despite the fact that people’s values and environments are rapidly changing.
India is a land of striking contrasts: the voluptuous forms of Hindu goddesses (like in the photo I took at Kamakhya temple up top) clash with the images of Bollywood actresses who are increasingly resembling the stick-thin actresses of the West. In a culture that venerates femininity and adorns women with bangles and saris, widow-burning and wife-beating still occur. Homosexuality is still largely unacknowledged to exist at all, and yet it’s socially acceptable for girls to hold hands, or for boys to drape their arms around each other in public.
Next time I go to India, I’m bringing a separate suitcase filled with sex education materials to distribute while there, or give to a volunteer group if I manage to link up with one. That way, I can not only help provide much-needed information, but I’ll also have an empty suitcase to fill with the beautiful fabrics and other crafts that, as a folklorist, I can’t help but adore!