It’s been a disappointing
month for me: upon my return to India from the International AIDS Conference,
AIDS Control Organization (NACO)
released its revised Adolescent Education Programme (now called Life
Skills Education) textbooks in India for use in sexuality education
courses throughout the country. The first editions were banned by 12
state governments for their "objectionable" and "explicit" content,
and their "attack on Indian values." (An article in Frontline
the tensions in detail.)
The new textbooks emphasize
abstinence, do not explain sexual intercourse, and do not reflect the
diversity of young people’s lives. We know from research that
abstinence-only programs have no impact on whether or not teens have
sex, and whether or not they use protection, or even know how to protect
themselves from sexually transmitted infections or unwanted pregnancies–surely
these textbooks will not move NACO towards its goal of preventing teen
pregnancies or reducing the number of new HIV infections among young
At a satellite session during
the AIDS Conference, I asked how an abstinence-only curriculum would
ensure that young people have the information they need to protect themselves
against HIV. The panelists, India’s Health Minister, Dr. Anbumani
Ramadoss and NACO’s Director General, Ms. K. Sujatha Rao, avoided
the question and did not respond.
Around the same time, back
home, in India, youth groups, educators, sexual rights groups, women’s
rights groups, disability rights groups, and groups working on child
sexual abuse came together to demand an approach to sexuality education
that would empower young people by providing them with comprehensive
and accurate information about their bodies, sex and how to protect
themselves and their partners against HIV and sexually transmitted infections.
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I also asked the panellists
how NACO intended to prevent transmission of HIV/AIDS among women who
have sex with women. We know that just because a penis is not involved,
it does not mean that HIV, and other sexually transmitted infections,
cannot be transmitted. And even though the rate of female-to-female
transmission is low, this does not mean that women who
have sex with women are not at risk. Again, they abstained from
replying to my question.
By ignoring the realities of
young peoples’ lives, including women who have sex with women and
those who identify as lesbians, we are missing a huge opportunity to
catalyze lasting and fundamental change.