That even an HIV epidemic can present opportunities for unethical practitioners in the medical profession to reap the veritable "harvest" (for lack of a better word) came to light with the discovery that certain doctors making their patients believe that they had contracted the virus, while the good doctor presented a picture of hope to the hapless patient, promising to cure him – of course at a price. And lo and behold, several months, many visits, and mounds and heaps of payments later, the once "positive" patient was a cured man! Quacks have been minting money in this manner for long but to actually have licensed doctors do the same – to take advantage of the have half-baked information on the illness and make their millions out of it would be a new low.
But more than anything the incident exposes the lack of information and outright misinformation available on the subject of HIV. With one of the largest positive populations outside the African continent residing in India, the fear of contracting the virus seems to have made its way into the hearts and minds of a largely ignorant populace. However, modes of transmission are a matter which has hardly been addressed, keeping doors for exploitation on the issue wide open. From the machismo that makes one think that everyone except "me" can contract the virus to the ignorant belief that it can be contracted by touch, or even food, are the two ends of the extreme spectrum of beliefs that exist.
In a scenario where superstition and fear is what holds sway amongst a significantly illiterate population, with quacks and local priests as the holders and disseminators of this information, the writing on the wall – literally – goes unnoticed. And hence many of the campaigns on HIV/AIDS awareness have failed to reach the intended targets, as they ignored the illiteracy of the masses – rendering print advertisements a complete waste. Newer campaigns, though, have changed their strategy significantly and focus on the need to bring the discussion of HIV beyond the context of the taboo subject of sex – the bad three-lettered word in the Indian cultural ethos.
And it is in the midst of all this that the issue of sex-education becomes so important. While the union government has shown clear intent to introduce the curriculum in schools, the resistance has been so strong and persistent that the controversial subject has ended up on the back-burner. And yoga (at a time when it has re-achieved a near universal status – especially through endorsements by A grade celebrities around the world – as an alternative way of life) seems to have become the new mantra for everything that is not right about sex education.
Recently a couple of churches in Britain objected to yoga and called for a ban on yoga classes for children terming it "unchristian activity." And it is here that the yoga/sex education issue becomes interesting. The argument against yoga appears to have come from the attempt to achieve wholeness of body and mind, which some of these priests believed challenged the basic tenets of their religion and its teachings. Back in India, sex education has been called a western import by many conservative religious and political leaders and described as part of a global agenda to push condom sales that is completely alien to the Indian ethos. The truth appears to be starker than that. The yoga and sex education rhetoric are not isolated incidents but the reflection of deep-rooted discomfort. And despite the claims of a global environment, for these flag-bearers, culture and religion have increasingly become fixed categories which consequently are not just failing to assimilate but, thus, are also losing their ability to respond to the critical issues of our time.
Even if one were to believe sex education is alien to the Indian education system, sex definitely is not – given the sheer size of the Indian population. Interestingly, if there is one thing that has found common ground for religious leaders all across the Indian spectrum then it is this issue of sex education. The campaign has drawn support from spokespeople of almost all faiths – Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian – with the resistance to sex education having become the "common minimum program" for all religious groups. An example being the principal of one of India's oldest educational institutions – Catholic priest – in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh in India who appears to have found common cause in earlier statements of a popular yoga exponent in the country. "Sex education in schools needs to be replaced by yoga education… society's morality cannot improve with teaching sex education in schools. And AIDS cannot be prevented by talking free sex and by using condoms," could as well be a comment made by this yoga exponent as much as of this principal such is the commonality in beliefs on sex education – one from an educator and the other from a yoga exponent.
The argument is not to challenge the health benefits of yoga as a way of life (and regular exercise) that can definitely help people living with HIV lead a much healthier lifestyle. But the fact is, as the situation stands, yoga has yet to find a cure for AIDS. And till that happens, in a scenario when the positive population in the country has been registering a dramatic rise with every consensus (with an estimated 5.7 million cases), and in an atmosphere of illiteracy and ignorance, statements like these carry the potential of being misleading and undoing the efforts of innumerable activists and organizations in checking the spread of HIV by promoting safe behavioral practices.
With one-third of the reported infections across India in the 15-29 age group and 50 percent of all new infections in this young category, it makes the issue of sex education particularly important. But the discourse on sex education stands at the heart of a tenuous debate and conflict over traditional Indian values, contemporary morality and the best way to educate adolescents. Cultural acceptability and sexual taboos jostle for space amidst rapid social change in the Indian society and increasingly globalised values.
In a situation where children – through their own half-informed peers or seniors – first learn about sex, the verb, and only later get to know that the three lettered word is also a synonym for the word gender, it becomes particularly important that the information that they get is correct and not misleading and definitely not fatally misleading.
In objecting to sex education, parents, and specially urban parents, ignore the fact that they have done very little to prevent the exposure of their wards to titillating and the potentially-exploitative quality of sexual portrayals in the media and at other times the demeaning depiction of women in soaps. And yet, they seem to have a very strong argument against sex education within a reliable and controlled environment.
And for the final and crucial segment leading the resistance to sex education – the teachers – the concern seems to be far more basic than the lofty ramblings of the political elite (of cultural ethos and its trappings). They are simply embarrassed talking about sex. And they would find it inconvenient to tackle queries from students. It is this embarrassment to discuss sex which is at the heart of the need for sex education in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, the alarming figures on child abuse in the country and the rise in unwanted teen pregnancies and fatalities from botched abortions. With every second child in the country having faced some form of sexual abuse with 21.9 per cent having endured severe forms of sexual abuse we are talking about significant numbers here considering that 19 percent of the world's children reside in the country.
If we do not start talking now, when will we?