In the name of culture

Print edition : October 05, 2007

A few State governments ban the Adolescence Education Programme for its objectionable content and force a review.

in Delhi

V.V. KRISHNAN

The nationwide Adolescence Education Programme (AEP), conceived by the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development and the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), is under review following protests from some State governments. The AEP was meant to be implemented in the States through the departments of education in collaboration with the State AIDS Control Societies (SACS). Its main objective was to enable students in classes IX and XI to get adequate knowledge about the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in the context of acquiring life skills. The AEP sessions, which were to be conducted by nodal teachers for a minimum of 16 hours in an academic year, are on growing up, adolescence, reproductive tract and sexually transmitted infections, and HIV and AIDS.

The review was necessitated after several States, mostly those ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), objected to what they felt was explicit content in the flip chart and the teachers workbook. The objectionable content included pictures of male and female reproductive systems and those depicting physical changes in boys and girls, diagrams explaining conception and contraception, and the language used in some exercises.

The State governments that objected to specific illustrations and exercises in the AEP are Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh Maharashtra and Rajasthan. In Orissa, the State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) threw up its hands following protests over the explicit content and decided that only teachers and not students would be given exercises designed to teach reproductive changes. There were random protests in Jharkhand by the Islamic Students Organisation of India and in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmirs capital, by a womens separatist outfit, Dukhtaran-i-Milat. The Jammu and Kashmir government, however, told a news agency that it did not have any proposal to introduce the programme.

Finally, education being a State subject, it was left to the respective State governments to utilise the AEP tool kit in the manner they deemed fit. Despite this understanding, a few States decided to ban the programme in its existing form citing several reasons, culture being the most prominent of them.

In a letter to the HRD Ministry, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan said the Union government had devaluated Indian culture and its values. He wrote: I believe that the text material on the subject was not submitted before you in a proper manner or else you would not have approved it. Instead the younger generation should be taught about yoga, Indian culture and its values. Interestingly, the controversy was kick-started by the Opposition Congress in the State; the ruling party took up the issue only later.

Rajasthan Education Minister Ghanshyam Tiwari noted that the course material was disgraceful and capable of corrupting young minds. Speaking at a press conference, Karnataka Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy said that sex education may have an adverse effect on young minds.

Though critics of the programme use the term sex education, nowhere has it been used in the flip chart or in the facilitators handbook for trainers. In fact, the rationale for the AEP was many. According to the latest Behavioural Surveillance Survey by NACO, nearly 8 per cent of those in the 15-24 age group had experimented with sex either before marriage or outside marriage. Nearly half of the new HIV infections were in this age group and 36 per cent of the total reported AIDS cases were among those under 29.

Even though HIV was the immediate factor behind the launch of the AEP, the other rationale for the programme was the 2007 study on child abuse by the Ministry of Women and Child Development. It suggested that nearly 53 per cent of the children reported having faced one or more forms of sexual abuse; in 50 per cent of the cases the abusers were known to the children or were in a position of trust and responsibility and most children did not disclose the matter to anyone. It was also estimated that each year, 10 million adolescents dropped out of secondary school, ill-equipped to handle life skills and situations.

Nearly 89 per cent of the adolescent girls and 67 per cent of the adolescent boys were found anaemic. Adolescent malnutrition was also found to be a growing challenge that led to higher maternal mortality and had an inter-generational impact. At present, adolescents (10-19 age group) constitute more than one-fifth of the population in the country.

The Kerala government decided to use the AEP tool kit with modifications, but most other States decided to ban the AEP following pressure as in the case of Maharashtra, where it came mainly from the Shiv Sena. Significantly, except for some political outfits and educational fronts such as the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, no parent or teacher had made any complaint against the AEP. In Delhi, the SCERT got applications under the Right to Information Act demanding information about the content of YUVA, the school adolescence education programme for classes VI to IX.

The Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti and organisations such as the Bharatiya Lok Sansthan staged protests in Delhi, with former Union HRD Minister Murli Manohar Joshi throwing his weight behind them. The Samitis national convener, Dina Nath Batra, warned of a countrywide agitation against sex education and the distortion in history textbooks by the United Progressive Alliance government. The organisation describes itself as a forum of nationalist historians committed to protecting the country against conspiratorial forces represented by the followers of Marx and Wahabism. In its website, it recalls the glorious path carved by the previous National Democratic Alliance government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The All India Democratic Womens Association (AIDWA) criticised the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti. In a statement issued on July 18, AIDWA said: At a time when more and more facts are coming to light about sexual attacks of various kinds faced by adolescents at home, in schools and in the public sphere, the need for them to be given the requisite knowledge to recognise and ward off such advances is very necessary. It is also essential for young people to have access to knowledge about their own bodies and reproductive processes in a society where this may not be available to them in their own homes By reacting to sex education as if it were some kind of pornography that would corrupt society and by not accepting social realities that are the real obscenities, the Samiti is only strengthening the status quo.

However, the HRD Ministry succumbed to the resistance and constituted a national-level tool kit review committee to make necessary modifications. This committee, comprising educationists, doctors, child psychologists, interfaith coalition members and communication experts, held its first meeting on August 8. It is reliably learnt that the committee has decided to review the tool kit drastically.

Earlier, in a last-ditch attempt to get the State governments to accept the tool kit in principle, NACO, in consultation with the HRD Ministry, had written to the Chief Ministers of States where the programme had been totally suspended, requesting them to constitute similar committees with teachers and parents to review the material. But as the protests continued relentlessly, the Union Health and HRD Ministries stepped in to salvage the situation.

Responding to a question in the Rajya Sabha in May, the HRD Ministry clarified that there was no proposal to include sex education in the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) curriculum and that the AEP had been launched for secondary and higher secondary classes in order to empower the adolescent population to develop life skills for addressing psychological, social and health concerns.

The controversial tool kit, which was removed from public circulation following the brouhaha, had been primarily designed for the educators and for raising relevant growing up issues with adolescents. The material was prepared by NACO and the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF).

Frontline obtained access to the tool kit and found that the graphics and illustrations in it were no more explicit than what was printed in biology textbooks. The language of the tool kit was also sensitively designed for adolescents in order to dispel stereotypes and distorted images of growing up.

In a note for educators, the tool kit says: Growing up doesnt mean preparing yourself for wifely/husbandly roles and for fatherhood or motherhood only. Nor does femininity mean being always shy and silent, in the same way masculinity does not mean that you have to be tough and invalidate the feelings of the opposite sex.

There are key messages in every section, such as: Adolescence is a normal process it is not just you, everyone goes through it; be comfortable with yourself and your sexuality; learn to respect your body; do not be afraid to ask questions to parents, teachers or someone you trust.

The session on Growing Up was meant to be conducted separately for boys and girls with a male teacher for boys and a female teacher for girls. One of the key messages to the educators while discussing contraception goes thus: It is extremely important when discussing birth control to make it clear that we are not assuming that the students are, or should be, sexually active. Be sure to adequately discuss abstinence as a birth control option.

Both the handbook for refresher teachers training and the controversial flip chart have the saying Knowledge is power on the cover. The cover illustration is that of a co-educational classroom with a student and a teacher in discussion in front of a blackboard where the aphorism has been scribbled even as the rest of the class looks on.

The only thing perhaps remotely erroneous about the concept is that while adolescence education is the leitmotif of the tool kit, the immediate reason cited for imparting such education is to educate children about HIV and AIDS. A few educationists and counsellors in the SCERT, Delhi, told Frontline that the prevention of HIV and AIDS was behind the conception of the AEP and the component of HIV and AIDS was bound to be present in the programme as funds came from NACO. It appeared that the State Councils had little choice in the matter though they felt that adolescence education could have been imparted without the thrust on HIV and AIDS.

Interestingly, the programme was conceptualised as early as 1993 when a Learning for Life module was developed by the Department of Education and NACO in collaboration with the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and UNICEF; the HIV and AIDS component did not form a part of it then. In 1993, NACO implemented the School AIDS Education Programme in collaboration with the education departments in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

Before that, in 1980, the Ministry of HRD implemented the National Population Education Project across several States through the NCERT. In 1993, the Adolescent Reproductive and Sexual Health programme in schools was implemented with support from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in several States. The current controversial tool kit was also prepared by the HRD Ministry, NACO and UNICEF in collaboration with the State departments of education and State AIDS Control Societies. The content was based on State-level material, which was field tested and thoroughly vetted by the NCERT.

A lot of preparation had gone into the formulation of the AEP. The process began in October 2004 after an inter-ministerial meeting representing six Ministries decided that education on HIV prevention would be introduced as a co-curricular programme in 1.5 lakh schools within the overall health education package. Meetings were held throughout 2004-05 and it was decided that the HRD Ministry would be the lead agency in implementing the programme with financial and technical support from NACO, UNICEF and UNFPA.

Eight regional workshops were held in 2005, and the AEP tool kit was designed through a consultative process involving State governments. It was decided that each State would have a State Core Committee under the chairmanship of the State Education Secretary. The AEP tool kit was shared with all the State partners for their review and feedback. It was further decided that the States would adapt the AEP tool kit to their local contexts before printing. However, a common minimum content for HIV prevention was suggested within the framework of adolescence education.

In 2006, the existing school textbooks were analysed by the NCERT the nodal agency within the HRD Ministry coordinating the AEP to see if adolescence education components were adequately weaved into the curriculum. It was found that in 1,957 textbooks taken from 19 States, the quality and quantity of adolescence education was not enough. Therefore, in March 2007, the NCERT was mandated to do a mapping for adolescence education in collaboration with the States.

It now remains to be seen what the outcome of the review and its consequences for adolescence education will be. If, succumbing to pressures from self-styled custodians of Indian culture, the new avatar of the AEP sanitises the complex issues confronting adolescents, the objective of addressing this sensitive age group in the best scientific manner possible will not be achieved.

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