Sex Education in Indian High Schools
by Antara Kulkarni (India)
Audio: "Sex Education in Indian High Schools," read by Antara Kulkarni
“Tie up your hair so the boys can focus on physics.”
These words find me more times than my own name. How do I argue that Newton’s third law of motion should be irrelevant to a haircut?
If pins aren’t used to neatly tuck strands of my unkempt hair back, I am not presentable. If I do not wear a black hairband to match with my black hair ties, I do not represent my school well. And finally—I must wear a skirt to show my femininity. The pretext of my school uniform is this: boys wear shorts while girls wear skirts. That is, until high school, when it changes to pants for the boys, while us girls are still trying to fit ourselves into our grade five skirts. Nobody has asked me if wearing a skirt to identify myself makes me feel comfortable.
In most high schools I’ve been privy to, there is “boy” and “girl.” Unspoken policies dominate the hallways, and the confusion is irrelevant to the binary gender norms that characterize our classes. I have yet to come across a school that provides gender-neutral bathrooms, and this is just one of the ways that lack of awareness of gender expression separate from “boy” and “girl,” and sexuality, for that matter, is manifested.
Of course, sex education involves many different aspects of sexuality, identification, and sexual maturity, but unfortunately, hardly any of them are considered “appropriate” enough to discuss.
When I was in grade six, my mother questioned my class teacher on whether our grade would have a discussion about menstruation, because while she could obviously inform me of the basics, having an educator present who’d be open to discussing questions would be beneficial for me while at school. However, she was informed that we would not be having that conversation, mainly because it was “difficult to send the boys out of the class for so much time” and that “they’d feel uncomfortable being a part of such a discussion.” I was eleven years old at the time, and I accepted her words as fact.
According to Spot On!, a 2014 report by the NGO Dasra, 71% of adolescent girls remain unaware of menstruation until their first period. A 2015 survey by the Ministry of Education showed 63% of schools in villages never teach about menstruation or its hygienic implications.
And I attend a private school.
When I was in grade seven, my class teacher gathered the girls from our class to have an important discussion regarding the field trip, which was a two-night stay at a tourist spot a few hours away from our school. She talked about packing “right” for the trip—that we were encouraged not to bring any shorts, skirts, or sleeveless tops. Because God forbid we have shoulders, I was thinking! Admittedly, the teacher was concerned for our safety because anything “too revealing” might cause the “kakas [drivers] and boys to stare.” Better to be safe than sorry, I agree, but how I wished that instead of the girls being told not to let their hair down, the boys would be told to behave themselves. How I wished that if the girls were expected to listen, the boys would have to, too.
Because while we girls wear skirts in our school to prove our gender, we are encouraged to cover ourselves up otherwise so as not to encourage any advances.
Because this world we live in has led others to believe that a skirt is either identification or an invitation. Both, actually.
When I was in grade eight, our entire class was abuzz one day with chatter that we were finally having a half-hour lecture on sex education. We’d never even heard our teachers use the word “sex” before. I still don’t think I have. In the human reproductive chapter in our biology class, it was always referred to as “coitus” or “copulation” and whispered so softly that we’d have to strain to hear it. We walked up to the auditorium and took our seats, nervous chatter filling the air, waiting eagerly for something we knew nothing about.
By the end of the session, we were staring at a slide with a photo of a tea-cup on it, and this is precisely what we’d learned: sometimes, when you visit someone at their house, they might offer you tea, but remember it is always your right to say NO to the tea. Forcefully. You can always refuse the tea.
To this day, most of what we actually know about sex is from Netflix shows, or The Notebook. In 2014, sex education was actually banned from schools in India, while yoga was made compulsory. While it is supposed to be implemented today, the bare-minimum is rarely found anywhere, and the topics of gender roles in sex and consent, the actual biology behind all of it, and social issues such as the male gaze and assault cases for both men and women are not talked about. With the social stigma surrounding this “taboo” topic, I can barely bring myself to type the words out on the internet, but I cannot help thinking—if I don’t educate myself about this, who will?
Our teachers and parents have grown up with the idea of anything surrounding sex being off-limitz, with abstinence preached over education. Menstruation has been deemed “unclean.” Changing your views in the middle of your life is admittedly tough, but being open to such a change is necessary. While tradition and history can be held accountable for certain approaches regarding the education of these topics and while we know our teachers are trying to keep us safe that it might be uncomfortable to discuss these topics freely with children, nonconformity is key. And awareness through education can help us achieve it.
I have since decided that it is important to talk about such issues. It is important to talk about dictated binary gender roles, about how humans wouldn’t exist if girls didn’t bleed every month, about safety and consent, and about what is force and what is permission. Because education is the crux of it all; education teaches girls that older men cat-calling them on the streets is not “just the way it is,” and that if humans can control countries, they can control themselves. Education teaches that, dear world, if I let my hair down and wear a short skirt, I am not “asking for it.”
Acharyya, Rakhi. “Sex Education in India: Importance, statistics, myths, issues.” Careerizma, 2 Apr. 2019, https://www.careerizma.com/blog/sex-education-india/.
Dutta, Saptarshi. “23 Million Women Drop Out Of School Every Year When They Start Menstruating In India.” NDTV, 28 May 2018, https://swachhindia.ndtv.com/23-million-women-drop-out-of-school-every-year-when-they-start-menstruating-in-india-17838/.
Hales, Georgia. “Boys and menstruation in Indian schools.” Water, Sanitation and Health (WASH) Blog, 25 October 2018, https://wash.leeds.ac.uk/boys-and-menstruation-in-indian-schools/.
Namgyal, Kelsang. “PRIDE: LGBTQIA+ and the Indian School Education System.” Turn the Bus, https://www.turnthebus.org/blog/pride-lgbtqia-and-the-indian-school-education-system, [accessed 6 Jun. 2022].
Oomen, Emily Joy. “5 Facts about Sex Education in India.” The Borgen Project, https://borgenproject.org/5-facts-about-sex-education-in-india/, [accessed 6 Jun. 2022].
Srivastava, Nivedita, and Dudeja, Mohit. “The Perils of Being Queer in Indian Schools.” The Bastion, 13 Jul. 2020, https://thebastion.co.in/politics-and/the-perils-of-being-queer-in-indian-schools/.
Times News Network. “Create gender-neutral toilets, sensitise staff, schools told.” Times of India, 15 Dec. 2019, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/goa/create-gender-neutral-toilets-sensitise-staff-schools-told/articleshow/72631253.cms.
Antara Kulkarni, 16, comes from India and is a junior in high school. She chose to write about this topic because she feels it is an important issue that needs to be addressed, especially now. When not writing, she can be found questioning her life choices and/or listening to My Chemical Romance.
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3/15/23, 5:10 PM
I am seeing all of your comments, and BLESS YOU ALL, thank you so much for wishing me well on this journey, your kind words will certainly help me get there! ❤️❤️
Here's my linkedin, just in case:
I hope I can do that lol
3/13/23, 3:01 AM
3/10/23, 6:30 PM
You write beautifully and with so much passion. Wonderful writing Taieba,
2/28/23, 3:57 PM
"I am trying to tell you wish I were a boy
but you mis-trans-late the words and hear
wish I were less of a girl." This is my favourite statement from here! A trans-formative piece :)
2/28/23, 5:26 AM
What a wonderful piece of writing! I cannot wait to see how you will change the world for the better with your words! I am proud of you and am even prouder to call you my friend!
2/27/23, 11:43 PM
Fun to read, causing me to want to make one of these creations and the devour the result. Sophia, thanks for sharing your creativity with us
Lilies and Peonies
2/27/23, 7:00 PM
Wow, you have been through so much. What a terrible time to be living through, so many lives broken, lost, or insecure because of the war. I'm praying for you that God would protect you and your family, and that he would keep you until the war ends.
2/27/23, 4:58 PM
Sophia is my granddaughter and I am very, very proud of her and her writings. I am sure we will be seeing a lot more of her written words in the future!
2/24/23, 7:41 PM
How do I add a poem? <3
2/21/23, 6:39 AM
Amazing writing here. I love the force this piece gives. You write so creatively.
2/21/23, 6:37 AM
Congratulations on getting published!
2/20/23, 10:55 PM
This is IT!