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Health minister ‘crude’ jibe at sex education

New Delhi, June 27: Health minister Harsh Vardhan today spawned outrage with his comments on “so-called sex education”, prompting educationists and health activists to accuse him of mixing up science with his personal moral beliefs.

The hash tag #YoBJPSoSanskaari (the BJP is so pious) trended on Twitter through the day, with posts asking the minister to “grow up”.

Harsh Vardhan had first called for a ban on “so-called sex education” on his personal website during last winter’s Delhi elections, when he was the BJP candidate for chief minister. It did not attract much notice then.

The first cries of protest came on Tuesday when an American newspaper quoted him as saying the AIDS battle in India would be fought with the emphasis on sexual fidelity rather than condoms.

Today, the minister caused further uproar with a tweet that said: “I am against ‘so-called’ sex education, not sex education per se. Crudity, vulgarity out; values in.”

“The health minister has no business prescribing his personal beliefs to the nation. He should stick to science. He should realise that the world has moved beyond Ram Rajya,” said psychiatrist Harish Shetty, who works with adolescents at high risk of HIV infection.

“With such high-risk behaviour prevalent among adolescents, such statements by the country’s health minister are very dangerous.”

Experts who helped draft the adolescence education programme (AEP) — loosely called the “sex education curriculum” — say it is misleading to equate the course with “teaching the process of the sexual act”. It’s this conflation that results in accusations that the course is “crude” or “vulgar”, they have said.

Although the battle against AIDS falls within Harsh Vardhan’s domain, the Union health and family welfare minister has no authority over the AEP, which comes under the ambit of the human resource development ministry, which governs education.

The course is an awareness programme for schoolchildren to help prevent unwanted teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS, apart from promoting social values like gender equality and a sense of personal responsibility.

Schoolteachers are provided with a manual with whose help they impart oral teaching to students of Classes IX to XI, and often hold counselling sessions in the presence of parents.

“The AEP is a science-based discussion on the mind and the body. We have to stop politicising the subject,” said Jitendra Nagpal, who was part of the committee that drafted the programme.

He said: “The curriculum was devised after a lot of dialogue with adolescents to make them understand their bodies, minds, gender issues and human rights. It has nothing to do with the act of conception.”

Praveen Sinclair, director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training, agreed.

“The course should not be called ‘sex education’ but the ‘adolescent education programme’. We are promoting responsible behaviour and values among adolescents. I don’t want to comment on the minister’s statement. It’s his view,” she said.

Several states have kept the programme, introduced by the UPA in 2007, out of their schools despite the original teachers’ handbook having been revised to delete expressions like “arousal”, “masturbation” and “ejaculation” that had drawn objections.

“Scrapping the course would be disastrous. The current curriculum has nothing that is crude or vulgar,” Nagpal said. “It’s about empowering children. It’s best to know about sex at school in a conducive environment than to seek answers from the Net.”

Shetty said: “Sex education is part of health education. Even in Hinduism, sex is not a ‘vulgar’ or ‘crude’ act.”

Vardhan later tried to douse the controversy with a Facebook post that said: “Sex education that builds societies free of gender discrimination, teenage pregnancy, HIV-AIDS proliferation, pornography addiction, etc, should be the goal.”

Author Chetan Bhagat tried to sum up the debate by conveying his sense of what the youth of India who voted for the BJP felt. “Sex exists. Dear India, deal with it,” he tweeted.