By Krittivas Mukherjee
MUMBAI, May 14 (Reuters) - Moves to bring sex out of the closet in largely conservative India have kicked up a morality debate between educators who say sex education will reduce HIV rates, and critics who fear it will corrupt young minds.
It’s an emotive issue pitting modernists against conservatives in a country with the world’s highest number of HIV cases at about 5.7 million, a figure that experts say may balloon to over 20 million by 2010.
Biology teacher Thelma Seqeira infuriates conservatives in India every time she tells her students about masturbation, condoms and homosexuality.
Seqeira is doing exactly what India’s federal government wants the country’s 29 states and seven federally-administered regions to do -- fight the exponential spread of HIV/AIDS with information on safe sex.
"Sex education is the best way to prepare my students for adolescence and protect them from HIV/AIDS," said Seqeira, who teaches at a private school in Maharashtra state, western India.
But the governments of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh don’t agree. They have banned sex education at public schools because they say the learning modules are too explicit, and some pictures are too graphic.
Private schools are able to continue the lessons, but many have watered them down to avoid controversy.
The southern states of Kerala and Karnataka -- considered among India’s progressive states with high literacy rates -- are also considering bans.
The Indian government has been unable to stop these bans even as it seeks to curb the spread of HIV. In India, about 86 percent of HIV infections occur through sexual intercourse, one key reason being that migrant workers in cities visit prostitutes and infect their wives when they return home.
Ignorance about sex is widespread in the land of the Kama Sutra, where explicit sex acts are celebrated in ancient temple architecture.
But at home, mothers hesitate to talk to daughters about something as simple as menstruation, and even the basics of the human reproductive system are taught with much embarrassment in schools.
Experts are calling for a change in prudish attitudes to help counter the spread of HIV/AIDS. They say the winds of change must first blow through the country’s schools.
"Sex education does not mean you are encouraging sex which is how it’s interpreted," Renuka Chowdhury, India’s minister for women and child development, told Reuters last month.
"Sex education is an insurance for your child. It will protect your child."
Among the course elements that have generated much heat are discussions on homosexuality and descriptions of sex acts, including masturbation.
Proponents of the ban say the sex education course -- modelled on those taught in many Western countries, will make students imbibe "decadent western morality".
They point to polls showing that an increasing number of young people -- mostly India’s moneyed youngsters that live in cities -- have postponed marriage, but not sex.
An India Today poll revealed one in four Indian women between 18 and 30 in 11 cities had sex before marriage. One in three said she was open to having a sexual relationship even if she was not in love.
"AIDS is spreading because of cultural decadence and sexual anarchy," said Shajar Khan, a prominent student leader who opposes sex education at schools.
Analysts say conservative political parties, such as the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s main opposition group, are panning sex education courses at least partly to make political capital out of opposing the West.
But for parents bringing up children in rapidly modernising India, sex education may be a matter of life and death.
"The argument that if you teach about sex the children are going to run out and have sex is very unfounded," said Roshni Behuria, a mother of two girls.
"Killing the education bit won’t reduce the propensity towards sex. But it just might end up killing safe-sex ignorant young people."