By Adam Halliday, Paromita Chakrabarti, Meenakshi Iyer, Ritu Sharma, Kevin Lobo, Ketaki Latkar and V Shoba
The only lesson on sex in Mizoram’s school curriculum is squeezed into two pages in biology textbooks for Class X students, and it advocates abstinence as the “best and safest method”. Much of the chapter focuses on HIV and AIDS. When the teenagers of the state are not asking Dr Google for information, they rely on informal counselling sessions from teachers trained by the state’s AIDS Control Society, and volunteers at the Sunday afternoon church services. Abstinence is the main message in both, and sex is talked about as something sinful, which is most likely to cause regret later in life. “One of the teachers asked, ‘Suppose you have had sex before you get married. Will you have the courage to tell your future spouse? Will you be able to live without telling your spouse?’” says Kima, a 17-year-old, recalling one such session he attended some years ago.
Lalnunpuia Hrahsel, 42, has conducted these sessions for high-school students in Aizawl for several years now. He had been fine with telling teenagers that losing one’s virginity is not “in” and being a virgin actually is, that periods are normal, and that it is natural to have sexual urges but that abstinence is the best way to go about it and, if that seems difficult, masturbation is the next best option.
But a question from a young, pregnant, unmarried woman — should she follow the doctor’s advice and get an abortion or keep the child? — left him disturbed. “I just did not have a response. I knew she was hesitant to consult the pastor who would most probably have told her abortion is sinful, and yet she was not ready to keep the child. I understood her predicament to an extent, but I had no advice to offer and ended up agreeing with her that she should not have had sex,” he says. After some seconds of silence, he asks suddenly, “Do you think the way we are going about sex education is outdated? Are we really answering the unasked questions of youngsters, especially teenagers?”
The answer from across India to Hrahsel’s question is: no. Long before Union health minister Dr Harsh Vardhan used his website to warn against “vulgar” sex education, a 2009 parliamentary committee headed by BJP leader Dr Venkaiah Naidu had struck down the proposal to include sex education in schools because it thought it would corrupt Indian values. Since then, in state after state, most schools and teachers have fumbled in a conversation about continued…