Many Chennai schools reluctant to embrace sex education

Scope for sex education in schools

sex education session-holy child school-boys and girls sitting
Sex education session conducted in Holy Child School. Pic: Karpom Karpipom

“In my class, if a girl got her periods, two other girls stood behind her as human shields, so that nobody would see her holding a sanitary pad in class. If someone saw her with a pad, she feared being judged,” recalls 19-year-old Keerthana Srinivasan. This attitude is all too common among young people shielded from learning about themselves and their bodies.

“Pads are not missiles to be afraid of!,” says Sharath Sathya, founder of Karpom Karpipom, an NGO working towards sex education in schools.

Keerthana finished Class 12 in 2020 from a school in Chrompet sans any kind of sex education. “They did not even teach the human reproduction chapter in biology,” she said.

“If a child is asked to hide sanitary pads, then it proves that there is no attempt to teach children about themselves in that school,” said Cauviya Madhiyazhagan, a psychologist in Kilpauk.

Are Chennai schools doing enough to equip students with knowledge on various topics covered in sex education?

Can creating a freer and more welcoming environment in schools to discuss topics that are otherwise viewed as taboo help students understand themselves better?

Can we avoid instances of harassment and abuse by arming students with the right information at an early age?

Sex education in Chennai schools

In Chennai, there were 239 POCSO cases in 2020, 435 in 2021 and 49 until February 2022. In the wake of sexual abuse cases in educational institutions in Chennai, there have been discussions around introducing sex education in schools. But, what is the reality on the ground? 

We contacted around 11 private schools to ask about sex education initiatives but found none of them to have a sex education curriculum in place.

“Not many schools have a formalised sex education syllabus. Some schools may teach about good touch-bad touch to children,” says Dr G Shiny, an assistant professor of community medicine at Saveetha Medical College.

good touch bad touch chart in sex education
A chart showing good touch-bad touch for children to learn. Pic: Chalkpiece

Read more: When parents are involved: What we saw in a Chennai government school


“Government schools do not have any sex education curriculum,” said Prince Gajendra Babu, general secretary of State Platform for Common School System (SPCSS –TN).

We found that a few schools such as Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan School outsourced sex education sessions by calling a behavioural health sciences organisation. “They taught about sex, sexual orientation and gender,” said one of the students who did not wish to be named. 

On the other hand, American International School Chennai and The School – Krishnamurti Foundation India had active sex education curricula tailored for different age groups. 

Conversations with The School – Krishnamurti Foundation India suggest that they have a safety curriculum in place for students from class 1 onwards, which later on combines elements of ‘growing up’. An alumnus of the school we spoke to confirmed that these classes were only fact-based and there was no beating around the bush. “Because of that, we don’t have any awkwardness involved,” he said.**

Recalling his years in the school, the alumnus said they had separate sessions for boys and girls, so that the children could clear their doubts more openly. “I remember boys of Classes 7 and 8 asking about what masturbation was and whether it was something good or bad,” he said. They make sure it is a sincere and accommodative space where doubts were discussed and cleared. They had around five to six need-based sessions per academic year.

“From Class 9, the sex education classes were integrated with biology classes which gave greater quality”, he said.

Sometimes non-profit collectives and organisations working towards education like Teach for India, and Bhumi tie up with schools to conduct sex education sessions. 

Turning to the internet for sex education

A 2021 study titled ‘Knowledge, attitude and perception of sex education among school-going adolescents in the urban area of Chennai, Tamil Nadu’ found that female students had more awareness than male students. “It could be because female children are taught about sexual violence from a very young age by parents and teachers, compared to boys,” said Dr Shiny, one of the researchers involved in the study.

“When we ask why boys are not taught about sex as much as girls, the teachers say that the former will not take it seriously and may even find it funny,” explained Ramya Vasan, founder of Chalkpiece, a non-profit organisation working toward design education. “There is hardly any scientific knowledge shared about sexuality. For instance, when a girl attains her menarche, the elders ask her to behave in a certain way like not interacting much with boys. There are more prohibitory rules than factual explanations.”

The study also found that adolescent girls usually do not want to talk about sexuality because they might be judged, whereas boys find it ‘cool’ to know about concepts around sex and sexuality. “This is because of the taboos surrounding it. Boys are curious to explore it because nobody openly discusses sex and sexuality,” said Dr Shiny.

The children had very hazy ideas about what is intercourse, masturbation and other concepts according to the study. “Their half-baked knowledge comes from other informal sources like the internet, which does not always give accurate or healthy facts,” said Dr Shiny.

“They assume that the information on the internet is right, and have unrealistic expectations and ideas about sex later in their life,” said Cauviya. 

Even though there have been talks of bringing about a sex education curriculum in Chennai schools, there are several roadblocks along the way. “Teachers need to be sensitised about how to teach the students about sex. Many are not comfortable even while teaching the human reproduction chapter as part of biology,” said Dr Shiny. 

In the NCERT syllabus for the B.Ed programme, there is a mention of sex education under health education. Apart from that, there is a unit on Gender, School and Society in the 2021-22 B.Ed syllabus at Tamil Nadu Teachers Education University. Although it discusses gender roles in society and the safety of women and children, there is no mention of sex education.

“Many teachers are above 40 years of age, and they are not comfortable talking about sex to students. In fact, the teachers we spoke to, while conducting the study, questioned the need for sex education,” said Dr Shiny.

Role of parents in imparting sex education

Some parents are also roadblocks to implementing sex education in schools. “If schools have a sex education syllabus, parents think that they are encouraging students to have sex,” said Dr Shiny.

The study also found that the children are not comfortable learning about sexuality from their parents and prefer teachers to impart knowledge. “Children feel that a third person who is neutral, like a teacher, would be a more reliable source for sex education”, said Dr Shiny.

Meanwhile, a few of the parents we spoke to said that parents themselves must impart accurate knowledge about sex and sexuality. The parents claimed that they have taught their sons about menstruation and how they should treat a woman on her periods.

“It is important how parents of a boy child talk about and to women. Down the lane, this will prevent gender-based violence when the child grows up,” said Dr Shiny.

Another takeaway from the study was that students coming from nuclear families had better awareness compared to the ones living in joint families. “In a nuclear family, there is more alone time and space for the child to naturally explore their anatomy and changing bodies,” said Dr Shiny.


Read more: Homeschooling helping Chennai kids pursue their interests


NGOs fill the gap in sex education in schools

Despite teachers learning about sexuality and gender in their education courses, many do not discuss it in class, let alone teach about it.

“I taught middle school children about menstruation in a school in Thiruvanmiyur. I told them not to hide sanitary pads and talk openly about periods because it is a natural biological process. In the following academic year, the school teachers asked the female students to hide the pads,” said a fellow from Teach for India.

The fellow shared that the girls came forward and spoke to him about this incident, questioning the teacher’s approach. “This proves that they have understood and unlearned the taboos around menstruation due to interventions”, he said.

Ramya recommended that topics of sex education can be taught via activities, where the concepts are diluted to be age-appropriate. “We can also suggest age-appropriate books like Menstrupedia, which is a more reliable, accurate and personal way of teaching children about female puberty,” said Ramya. The book is in the form of a comic strip. 

sex education in a school
Ramya Vasan facilitates a sex education workshop using activities. Pic: Chalkpiece

“When we teach about sex to children, parents think that we are telling them about something beyond their age. But it is not. Teaching kindergarten kids how to wash their private parts is also sex education,” said Sharath. He and Subashini Krishnan run sex education workshops for schools. 

“Initially, we separate boys and girls. I teach for boys, while Subashini teaches for girls. We do not tell them everything. They usually write what they want to know on a sheet of paper, and we answer those questions first,” explained Sharath. The sex-ed session is separated for boys and girls because Karpom Karpipom found that the children are comfortable without any fear of judgement. However, Subashini tells the girls what the boys would learn and Sharath tells the boys what the girls would learn in the session.

Following that, the girls and boys are brought together to discuss and summarise their learnings. This tends to remove awkwardness and stigma towards the opposite gender.  

“For instance, an adolescent boy thought he would die because he got a pimple near his nipple. Other people have spread that myth, and he believed it because of no reliable source. I clarified that it is normal to get pimples there at this age and he would not die. This is also because boys are not more educated about their bodies than girls,” narrated Sharath.

“We need to go beyond good touch and bad touch to teach children about safe and unsafe behaviour. Moreover, sexual abuse need not happen only with touch. It can happen through other means as well”, said Sharath. For instance, if someone shows a pornographic film to a child, that is also sexual harassment, although it does not involve touch. 

He also advised that children be taught about consent and boundaries from a young age so that they can recognise and escape physical and sexual violations. 

Blind spots in sex education initiatives toward the LGBTQIA++ communities

The current NCERT and state syllabus of B.Ed has no mention of gender and sexual minorities. “Because of lack of knowledge on the LGBTQIA++ communities, many people think that the people who identify themselves to be queer or trans do it deliberately. However, the scientific truth is that it happens hormonally in their bodies,” said Dr Shiny. 

“It was so dysphoric when they [his school] took me along with other girls to talk about menstruation,” shared a 20-year-old trans man, highlighting the importance of taking into account the needs of gender and sexual minorities while imparting sex education.

The Madras High Court ruled in 2021 that schools must sensitise children towards LGBTQIA++ communities and their needs. “First, the schools must be sex-positive. Then only they can be sexual orientation or/and gender-positive,” said Cauviya. 

Corporation schools to get sex education classes soon

The Greater Chennai Corporation has planned to bring about gender equality initiatives in the corporation schools in the city, where the gender equality clubs will be planning various activities to change the narratives of gender stereotypes.

This initiative will be implemented in August this year, said official sources.

Sex education is important for children. “Apart from avoiding unwanted pregnancies and STDs, sex education will also reset the gender stereotypes in society, making the city more inclusive and equal for all genders,” said Dr Shiny.

**Errata: This paragraph has been altered with new facts following clarifications from The School – Krishnamurti Foundation.

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About Padmaja Jayaraman 19 Articles
Padmaja Jayaraman is a Reporter with the Chennai Chapter of Citizen Matters. While pursuing her MA in Journalism and Mass Communication at Kristu Jayanti College, Bengaluru, she moonlighted as a freelance journalist for publications like The Hindu MetroPlus, Deccan Herald, Citizen Matters and Madras Musings. She also holds a B.Sc in Chemistry from Madras Christian College, Chennai. During her leisure, you can find her making memes and bingeing on documentaries.

3 Comments

  1. “On the other hand, American International School Chennai and The School – Krishnamurti Foundation India had active sex education curricula tailored for different age groups. These two schools follow an international syllabus.”
    The School does not follow an international syllabus. This is factually incorrect.
    Ms. Padmaja could have contacted the school and talked to its teachers. The safety curriculum is in place from class 5 to 7. We have Growing Up classes from class 5 upwards and both the physical and psychological aspects of the process of growing up is discussed. This is done by two teachers of the school along with consultations with the school’s doctor, who is also a teacher. The information provided by our alumnus is old and it would have added value to have updated information.

    • Thank you for your comment. We are glad to make the corrections based on clarifications from you and the School and add a corrigendum. However, we tried to reach out to the school in multiple ways but received no response, after which we spoke to the alumnus.

  2. I wish to modify that the safety curriculum is from class1 to 7 and not just class 5 to 7 as indicated in my previous comment.

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