I found out last Sunday that Ajay Devgn taught my husband about consent.
He was a budding teenager watching a movie clearly not aimed at his age group. It was a 90s romance where the parents forcibly married the heroine, Aishwarya Rai, who loved someone else. Unable to tolerate Ajay’s advances on the wedding night, and in a decisive turn of events, Aishwarya defiantly ignores her bridal saree, daring him to take her knowing his heart is not in it. Ajay, ever the gentleman, steps back and insists that nothing would happen in this relationship without his full consent. “It taught me that it’s only fun if both parties are having fun,” my husband mused over a cup of tea. I wondered how, of all the problematic Bollywood films that surrounded him growing up, he learned from one of the only ones that wasn’t.
I quickly realized that it wasn’t the movie that found him, it was him who chose the movie that would impact his psyche. It was only because he was blessed with a modicum of empathy that he could sift through all the teaser-laden 90s movies and cling to a human approach to sexuality and individuality. Hundreds of social outreach programs and thousands of opinion pieces like this wouldn’t have swayed his perspective on bodily autonomy, had his moral compass been slightly skewed from a young age, so early. that most of our conversations and policies surrounding consent education are completely missing. this. We depend on families to educate children with the basics of empathy and morality, and we depend on society to guide them into healthy relationships. But more often than not, any success in either area is completely accidental.
The verdict on comprehensive sex education is in: there is a significant positive correlation between access to sex education in schools and having healthy relationships as adults. Childhood sex education results in improved indicators of well-being on almost every front of adult physical, emotional and mental health and the benefits far outweigh any other intervention at this stage of life. life. Law enforcement, community building and urban design can reduce the risk of sexual assault in public spaces and can even force citizens to engage in civil debate about sexuality, but this does not does little for direct or indirect human rights violations behind closed doors. When it comes to such serious social harm, we cannot hand over the tasks to external bodies to punish the criminals or seek retaliation; we must push for prevention so that harm does not happen in the first place.
Since sex education is the answer, the main questions we need to ask ourselves are those that plague all practitioners: what, when and how? What type of sex education, at what age, presented in what way would be most effective for our population? These are the questions I have pursued for much of my adult life, mostly out of a singular desire to prevent what happened to me from happening to anyone again. I’m sure many women and men around the world feel the same way. It is a slowly seething, burning rage against a system that is not designed to keep abuse at bay, but invites it. Even though Bangladesh has significantly improved gender parity, especially compared to its neighbours, it faces the prospect of a bitter end to the economic growth witnessed by the empowerment of women if it does not control the social forces. The government is fully aware of this.
In 2012-2016, the Ministry of Education introduced the GEMS (Gender Equity Movement in Schools) module in collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in hundreds of schools. Graduates of the program praise their lessons, which have stayed with them to this day. As national implementation is underway, I find it important to share transferable lessons from countries with similar background or characteristics (India, Oman and Israel) for Bangladesh’s design of comprehensive sexuality education, not just gender education.
Most countries I studied found that the earlier they implemented comprehensive sexuality education, the more effective it was. GEMS was launched in the 12-14 age group, while it should be delivered gradually from the early years, even in primary school, bearing in mind that sex education for children does not is not the same as that of young adults. For example, “consent” or “autonomy” are complex terminologies for a child to grasp, but ideas around consent, good touch/bad touch, respectful body contact, moderate language are age blind. Interactive programs, follow-up group exercises and class discussions offer the best value for money as they are more cost effective than impressive audio-visuals, which often act as passive engagement. Additionally, adjusting the language for localities and including non-central examples does wonders for communication. Imagine a Sylheti teacher speaking in his dialect and providing relevant examples for that locality.
This brings us to one of the biggest determinants of CSE success: the facilitators. Not only is it crucial that teachers are trained to carry out these interactive lessons, but also that they believe in the material being taught. Authentic engagement with the principles of the program is of paramount importance and not something that can be forced. The government of Bangladesh may wish to hire traveling specialist sex educators, but I personally don’t think that’s necessary. Even in the remote area of Goshairhat, I found teachers lecturing on sanitary napkins and period without using a single euphemism, a prospect unthinkable just ten years ago. Bangladesh has much to be proud of, and our underpaid, undertrained and undervalued teachers are for the most part phenomenally dynamic. However, if they have the time or the support to accommodate an additional module in a chaotic educational environment, this is something the Ministry of Education should definitely assess.
When all the assessments are done and dusted off, our interventions are not carried out in a vacuum. The module that teachers present to students may be harmless and effective, but students can only learn the lessons if society is actively involved. In Bangladesh, local government, central government and private actors are often aligned in delivering social programs like family planning and girls’ education. But where commitment is sorely lacking is on the religious front.
My research of countries with similar demographics found that including Islamic bodies and authorities in the initial design increases the credibility of course content while facilitating implementation. Many may argue that it leaves too much room for religious interjection in a textbook, but what it actually guarantees is that there is a check for religious sensitivity before the national launch. Islamic countries around the world have comprehensive sex education in schools, and theulamaof Bangladesh are aware of this. In Islam there is specific mention of a child’s right to understand his body and mind and, conjecturally, his relationship to other people in the context of that mind and body. I am not at any time postulating that all the stakeholders of this government of risk, the schools,ulama, priests, parents will agree on all aspects of the design, but it is important that they agree on the necessity. This need is obvious and ultimately sex education will only succeed if every part of the community takes ownership of it.
What “successful” means also varies. We can’t hope for a Scandinavian version of sexual awareness a decade from now, nor should we hope for it. If my research has shown anything, it’s the importance of careful extrapolation of lessons, not replication, as the latter always results in a mixed bag of results. After a decade of comprehensive sex education, Bangladesh should hope for a tolerant society, where interpersonal relationships are approached with respect, not necessarily Western liberalism or Arab conservatism. I imagine a Bangladeshi society with a basic understanding of consent, where there is no need for Ajay Devgns to come to sudden realizations on screen, but only a somewhat peaceful acceptance of the right of another being human being to live freely and without interference. It will go very well.
Mastura Tasnimis a policy consultant working on local development, religiopolitics and gender education.
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