There has been so much discourse about sex and sexuality education all over the world that I perhaps may not be the only one to retrospect about it, in the context of my country, Nepal, before it became the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal as recently as 2008.
I don’t remember when I heard the term ‘sex’ for the first time. But I can assure you that it was not from my school teachers or from any member of my family. The closest reference to it I remember from school was in Class 6, when a subject called EPH – Environment, Population, and Health was introduced. Most of the chapters covered different aspects of Environment and Population, and minimal emphasis was given to the chapter on Health, the most interesting section of which was on HIV and AIDS. Knowing this, my friends (mostly the boys) were more excited about that particular chapter.
I probably heard the word ‘sex’ and learnt its meaning in an informal talk with school friends. I was not quite sure that the meaning I learnt was accurate or even near accurate at that point of time. After doing a chapter called Reproductive System in EPH in Class 8, my understanding of sex did get better, but the word ‘sex’ used to make me confused, ashamed, and feel awkward. In a class if the teacher mentioned the word, it would be followed by endless laughs and pranks amongst my friends who were as clueless as I was. I was ashamed and quite awkward about approaching this topic at school or at home.
I remember the strange way my teacher would behave while reading and labelling the male and female reproductive organs, the first time I was introduced to the phenomenon of reproduction in the Nepali education system. I also remember that he was not from a health science education background. He used to teach Accounts to our seniors but for us he was the health teacher. I now realise the information he used to give us was inaccurate and actually completely senseless.
Only friends from the male row in my class used to ask questions related to sex and sexuality to our teacher while the girls’ row remained in total silence with lowered gazes. The word ‘sex’ was taboo and it was forbidden even in an educational space. I recall that once my EPH teacher used the term ‘wet dreams’ which was in our course book with a very minimal explanation. None of my friends knew anything about it, and many of us asked the teacher what it meant. This time even my female friends were raising the same question. But our teacher responded only with a smile and asked us to read the chapter at home. After that the word was never mentioned and discussed again.
We were curious and, at the same time, hesitant to ask our elders and teachers. So, I used to rely on my peers who, like me, also had limited and inaccurate information about sex and sexuality.
In early 2013, with a youth- and civil society-led organisational advocacy movement, the EPH curriculum was revised and some more information and courses on adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) were added. As part of the movement, I was also involved in designing and implementing SRHR awareness programs in different schools of Kathmandu. During a school health promotion program on the topic of growing up and puberty, immediately after the session, a boy came up and asked me if his girlfriend could get pregnant through kissing. I realised that limited and inaccurate information about sexuality is still very common among adolescents.
In Nepal, the fertility rate is 81 per 1000 for women in the 15-19 years age range and 187 per 1000 for women aged 20 to 24 years. The mean age at first sexual intercourse for the age group 15-19 years is 16.24 years, and for the age group 20-24 years is 18.14 years. Only 38 percent of women in Nepal know about the legalisation of abortion in 2002, and 7 percent of maternal mortality in Nepal is due to unsafe abortion (Nepal Demographic and Health Survey – NDHS, 2011). A national survey on adolescents and youth revealed that the median age at first marriage for men is 19 years and for women is 17 years. Median age at first birth is 19 years. Early marriage is still prevalent in Nepal.
According to the National Adolescent and Youth Survey 2010/11, frustration, hopelessness and attempts to commit suicide are common types of mental health issues among adolescents and the young population. 9 percent of those aged 10-14 years, 14 percent of those aged 15-19 years, and 15 percent of those between 20 and 24 years have thought about committing suicide. For someone to think about ending their life, there must certainly be some critical driving factors. In many instances, family and social restriction and pressure related to SRH issues are causes for suicide.
Adolescents are also highly vulnerable to poor sexual health outcomes such as sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and this is all due to a limited knowledge of comprehensive and age-appropriate sexuality education. Even at a time of the Internet and the immense spread of communication technology, the main sources of information available to many adolescents in Nepal about sex, HIV & AIDS, abortion, menstrual hygiene, etc. are either their peers, magazines, or their course book which might not provide sufficient information to meet young adolescent curiosity. Limited sexuality education and understanding among adolescents come with widening circles of issues.
Sex and sexuality is not only an issue for married couples or adults. Neither is it a lesson on sexual intercourse nor is it prescriptive of a ‘culture and tradition’ to follow. It’s just a way of being human throughout life. Incorporating age-appropriate and comprehensive sexuality education in a school curriculum, enhancing parent-child communication, and training teachers to deliver the course effectively will be a great step forward in developing knowledge, attitudes and practices about sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure, intimacy, and reproduction amongst adolescents. It will help adolescents make safe and informed choices in their lives.
Cover Image: Global Partnership for Education