Several Indian states have suspended a sex education program designed for school students by a government body fighting to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS. The program has stirred an emotional dispute, between those who say it will reduce the spread of HIV by promoting safer sex, and those who say it will ruin Indian culture by corrupting young minds. Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi.
More than one-third of new HIV infections in India are being reported in the age group of 15 to 29. This fact has led people involved in combating the spread of the virus to conclude that Indian teenagers and young people are ill-informed about safe sex practices.
So the National AIDS Control Organization and the Education Ministry designed a sex education program to be taught to high school students, those aged about 15 to 17, across the country.
The designers hoped the program would become a major tool in preventing new HIV infections.
But the project has run into rough weather in a country where the word "sex" is still largely taboo. The educational authorities themselves gave an indication of the sensitivity surrounding the word, by calling the project an "Adolescence Education Program."
Nevertheless, in recent months, six states have thrown out the program, after noisy protests by lawmakers who say it will corrupt young minds.
They include people like Shobha Phadanvis, a legislator from the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party in the western state of Maharashtra. She helped lead the charge in her state against the program.
Phadanvis says, We are Indians, and the new sex education program simply has no place in our culture. Sex is only for married people, so students should not be taught about sexual relations between a man and a woman. She says such a program will encourage young people to stop studying, and indulge openly in sex.
Besides Maharashtra, the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Karnataka have banned the program. These include some of India's largest and most progressive states - and regions with a high incidence of HIV/AIDS. But state governments are standing firm. They have termed the program "disgraceful," and say it will devalue Indian culture and values.
The chorus of protests is steadily gaining momentum. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, schoolteachers have protested against the program by burning copies of the new syllabus. Many parents have also expressed opposition during heated public debates.
"We send our small children to school to get moral values and education, but not sex education," one parent said.
As the debate becomes sharper, the government has promised to take a second look at the content of the program.
But proponents of sex education are dismayed. They say such conservative ideas have little place in a modernizing country where attitudes toward sex are changing rapidly. They point to surveys showing that for a generation of Indians exposed to television and the Internet, casual sex or sex outside marriage is no longer taboo.
The head of the National AIDS Control Organization, Sujata Rao, has argued at various public forums that the issue is not cultural sensibilities, but preventing the spread of a potentially fatal infection.
"We are talking about saving lives…That should be at the back of it, and not talk about ideological considerations. It is saving lives," she said.
The country coordinator of UNAIDS in India, Denis Broun, says he understands that a sex education program in schools is a sensitive subject, but he argues that removing it from the curriculum is not the right answer.
"It has to be culturally specific, but it has to be there, because on the whole, parents in India do not talk about sex, but the whole society, advertisements, films, Internet, speaks very loudly about sex," he said. "If the school does not take care of good sex education, then it will happen in a manner you cannot control in any way, and which is probably not culturally adapted, not adapted to the needs of the children."
Cultural arguments aside, India has reason to want its youth to know about safe sex. The country is already grappling with two to three million cases of HIV/AIDS. In addition, lack of information about the transmission of the virus could put at risk the world's largest population of young people. India has 500 million citizens under the age of 25 years.