Late in January, photographs of a chapter on dating and relationships, apparently from the value-education textbook for Class 9 students of the Central Board of Secondary Education, were widely shared on social media. Some social media users said it was a good move but others demanded that it be removed.

On February 2, the Board said that the “objectionable material on dating relationships” were from A Guide to Self Awareness and Empowerment written by Gagan Deep Kaur and published by G Ram Books Pvt Ltd. The Board also said that it does not publish or endorse books from private publishers or cover dating and relationships in its value-education textbooks.

But is it so off the mark to assume that a chapter on relationships and dating could become a reality? The incident raises an important question: when will India be ready to teach comprehensive sexual education to school students?

Some schools do hold workshops on sex education but they often stop at anatomy, menstruation and preventing sexual abuse. These are, of course, critical pillars of sex education. However, public health experts have underlined the need for a holistic sex education that also covers relationships, values, gender and sexuality.

Comprehensive sexual education – CSE, as it is widely known – is a curriculum-based approach to teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality. It goes a step further than biology, covering topics that are key to understanding the experience of one’s body – like how to manage the sexual response cycle.

The curriculum also covers matters such as consent, healthy relationships and gender dynamics, among others.

Sex education – for students and teachers

According to a survey by Allo Health, the results of which were released in September, 70% of the over 8,500 respondents did not receive any sex education while they were in school or college.

Most Indian teachers have never been trained to impart sex education and neither have they had such classes during their time as students either. As a result, they are not equipped to handle related queries from students in a sensitive manner.

A starting point, then, is to ascertain the state of teacher training.

We interviewed six teachers and school administrators to gauge their views and perception of sex education. Our interviewees work at CBSE schools that cater to relatively privileged families across Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and the National Capital Region.

We also spoke to professionals working at organisations such as TARSHI, The YP Foundation, and UnTaboo, which play an active role in delivering comprehensive sexual education work for students, teachers and parents. Three common misconceptions about sex education in schools came to the fore during these conversations.

A sex education kit by a Vietnamese company, in this photograph from May 2020. Credit: AFP.

Myth 1: Sex education encourages children to engage in sex

“We have to be careful about what we talk about with these kids,” said Shipra Garg, 50, Coordinator of the Middle Wing (Class 6- Classs10), Samsara World Academy, Greater Noida. “The girls and boys have become very experimental. They think, why not just give it a try?”

Asked whether students discuss pregnancy prevention or sexually transmitted infections, a teacher from Coimbatore, who did not want to be identified, said, “We do not cover topics which are unnecessary or trigger unwanted thoughts.”

She said that it is necessary to be wary about speaking to Class 9-12 students as it could be perceived as encouraging them to experiment. “As a school, we do not promote sex out of wedlock,” said the teacher. “Our kids are not like metro kids where they are into relationships and other things, so we do not talk about pregnancy prevention here.”

A common assumption is that affluent, urban youngsters are sexually active and promiscuous even though several studies point to the contrary. For instance, a 2023 study by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information found that in rural areas, between 30% and 50% of adolescents had engaged in sexual activity before the age of 18.

Also, advocating abstinence until marriage has been proven to be ineffective. Such an outlook does not delay first sexual encounters among adolescents. It also fails to reduce risky sexual behaviour since it provides incomplete information, assuming that youngsters are not sexually active.

Comprehensive sexual education is linked to the delayed onset of first sexual encounters, decreased number of sexual partners and frequency of sex and a higher likelihood of using contraceptive and safety measures.

A study spanning 30 countries in the Asia-Pacific region by UNESCO in 2020 showed that comprehensive sexual education can contribute towards more informed decision-making among teenagers.

Teachers and parents are uncomfortable with sex education because they misunderstand it as explaining the process of sexual intercourse. But comprehensive sexual education primarily covers understanding the body, the risks associated with sexual behaviours and navigating consent and healthy relationships.

Myth 2: Children these days know what they need to know via the internet

“Nowadays, students know everything because of the mobile and internet,” said a maths teacher who has previously led value education classes covering sexual abuse at a school in Delhi. “They have tablets and mobiles.” The teacher claimed that students were far better informed about sexual matters than teachers themselves.

But a middle-school teacher from the same school differed. “They don’t exactly know what a relationship means,” said the teacher. “They think a relationship means only sex from class 6 itself... they don’t seem to know anything beyond that.”

This poor understanding is a concern since students have not learned about consent and safety. “This girl who got molested once came crying to us saying that she had sex,” said the teacher.

In the absence of trustworthy sources of information, students turn to social media, peer networks and television, all of which can provide distorted and even dangerous information.

Comprehensive sexual education delivered through schools is a safe forum that debunks myths and imparts verified knowledge.

Myth 3: Parents are opposed to sex education in schools

All but one of the teachers we spoke to agreed that youngsters should ideally receive some form of sex education but feared the reaction of parents. Some said that they want to bring up these topics in their classrooms, but are afraid of how parents will react.

“If I talk about these things with the kids, the parents will say aap hamare bachche ko kya sikha rahe hain [what are you teaching our children],” said an economics, social science and finance teacher for Classes 9-12.

However, sex education professionals who have worked with parents say otherwise. Kehkasha, a practitioner and associate with The YP Foundation, said: “Parents thank us for being here and talking about these issues. They said they tried looking on YouTube because they didn’t know where to start.”

Teachers say that sex education workshops are valuable. “I am in favour of training for these topics,” said a Delhi-based teacher. “If I address this issue without any prior information then I may not address it properly.”

A top-down push on sex education training may work well in bringing about change, like in the case of mental health, which was another stigmatised issue in schools.

Indian schools have seen a noticeable shift in how they address mental health with many educational institutions employing full-time therapists and counsellors to support students. This shift stemmed from policy changes that made it mandatory for Central Board of Secondary Education schools to appoint counsellors.

A similar policy push on sex education may help bring about similar change. Amita Prasad, director of Indus Valley World School, said that if the Board made it mandatory, teachers would have to undergo training. “There would also be zero opposition from parents,” she said.

Since no teacher is allowed to teach a subject without a required degree, Prasad said sex education should be a mandatory part of teacher training courses and degrees.

Teachers interact with students every day and are a crucial channel through which sex education can be provided. Training teachers is key to ensuring that they do so with an effective, evidence-based approach. It is the missing piece required to plug gaps in their knowledge and transform sexuality education in India.

Karishma Swarup and Raihan Riaz are consultants at Dalberg Advisors.