400 adolescent girls sitting in an assembly hall sniggering at the mention of sex is all I remember of our special ‘sex-ed’ seminar in school, the only attempt to educate young girls on their bodies and not fall back on the usual rhetoric of abstinence until marriage. Admittedly, I went to an orthodox Catholic school but it doesn’t take long to recognize that the state of sex education across the country is perfunctory at best and non-existent at worst.
Enter UnTaboo, a Mumbai based company that is working to equip adolescents with age appropriate, safe, and responsible sex education. Founded by Anju Kishinchandani in 2011, Untaboo recognizes the urgent need of making sex education widely accessible, and strives to remove the stigma attached to open, honest sex talk in the country.
In urban India, an increasing number of parents are supportive of their children receiving lessons in sex and safety but are often stumped when it comes to executing the task themselves, a situation Anju found herself in after becoming a mother. “Way back, somewhere in 2006, my eight–year-old son came home one day and announced that the USA stands for ‘Under Skirt Area’! I was aghast! Apparently, the older kids in the school bus had been ribbing the younger ones and asking them whether they knew the full form of USA and had they been there?! I realised at that moment that I may be a vigilant parent but I could not control his exposure to adult content outside the home. The only way out was to educate my child and be a step ahead of the exposure!,” she told YourStory.
During her research she came across a lot of material on the subject but, shockingly, none that would make sense to a pre-teen. She recognised a gaping hole in the Indian sex education of texts that spoke to the kids in their own language, or even remotely representing the comprehension levels of a 9-13 year old. So she decided to fill the gap and write a book on the subject. During the course of her work, she came across a lot of helpful material, and was often asked to help friend’s kids grasp the concept, which ultimately led her to found the company.
While a small section of educated urbanised parents might be opening up to the idea, the rest of India continues to have a complicated relationship with sex. Kids are growing up on Bollywood movies that use sex appeal as a marketing gimmick, while being actively discouraged to engage in the act itself. Because of the internet, teenage exposure to sexual content has never been higher, but the social stigma attached to pre-marital sex has such far reaching effects that many states in the nation have actually banned sex education in schools. In the midst of all this rampant misinformation and nonsensical rhetoric, it’s no surprise that teen pregnancy is an epidemic, with 7.8% of women between the ages of 15-19 pregnant, according to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS).
Anju outlines several reasons as to why parents hesitate when it comes to providing their children with quality sex education. “Parents of children aged between 13 and 14 years felt that their kids were too young to be spoken about puberty and growing up. And in puberty workshops, we don’t even talk about the sexual act – it is only about changes at adolescence. I decided to take the bull by the horns and spoke to hundreds of parents about what stopped them from giving sex education to their kids. What emerged were about six to seven common worries or blocks. Today, I do a talk on ‘Breaking the wall of silence’ aimed at unblocking those mind blocks and I have seen amazing results. I offer that talk free of cost to any social, corporate, school or parent group,” she told YourStory.
Untaboo holds different workshops for specific age groups focusing on issues most relevant to the particular age group so as to keep engagement levels high and the discussion age appropriate. Parents are highly encouraged to get involved and keep the conversation going at home. To positively reinforce their message, and also make the process more fun, Untaboo has produced a play called ‘Growing Up’, which tellingly revolves around the themes of puberty, and the social and emotional changes from pre-adolescence to adulthood. Citing 14-15 as the age when teens usually start experimenting and turning sexually active, Untaboo wants to ensure that age groups is exposed to a healthy discourse on relationships, and safe and consensual sex. To that end, they hold workshops for specifically that age group that holistically covers those specific areas. A step in the right direction, Untaboo is leading the way towards nurturing a healthy environment that encourages children to ask questions, and then have them responsibly answered.