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Religious control and young people: comprehensive sexuality education in Bangladesh and India.

Introduction. Young people (1) are not just our future; they are also our present, and if they are not equipped to live their lives fully in a manner that enables them to exercise all their rights, their potential will be lost. Integral to achieving this is ensuring their sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). (2)

Examining the situation of young people in the Asia-Pacific region--who represent 60% of the global population of 1.8 billion young people between the ages of 10-24-reveals the need for comprehensive sexuality education. While most adolescents remain unmarried, many females between ages 20-24 years are married. Those who marry early tend to be from rural areas, have less education, and are poor. Twenty-five percent of first births before 20 years in Asia were conceived before marriage. All these are taking place in the context of low sexual and reproductive health knowledge (3,4) and limited access to services, including modern contraception, for young people. Moreover, restrictions on abortion limit access to safe services, leading to morbidity and mortality. (3)

Stigma related to sex means young people are not seeking accurate information and relying heavily on misinformed peers. The consequences of unintended pregnancy, especially for unmarried young women, can include stigma, social isolation, school expulsion, forced marriage, violence, and suicide. For young men, social conditioning and prevailing gender and masculinity norms result in safe and responsible behaviour not being practised. (3)

When young girls are married, delaying pregnancies may not be an option due to pressure from the extended family and spouse to prove fertility. (3) Globally, aside from unsafe abortion risks, death from pregnancy--caused by haemorrhage, sepsis, preeclampsia/ eclampsia, obstructed and premature labour, and delivery complications--is the leading cause of mortality for girls less than 15 and 15-19 years. (5) The psychological effects and unpreparedness of being pregnant and having to care for children are further consequences. (5) Few young women receive skilled care during pregnancy and childbirth.

Religion and Sexuality. Religion, (6) through interpretations and beliefs, influences young people's sexuality, and their access to education, information, and services. Indeed, the role that religion plays in people's lives cannot be taken lightly. Often, religion is seen as a way of life, and thus a source of information on all aspects of life. Not only does it shape views, it dictates choices and practices and how people interact with others, thereby directly affecting wellbeing.

However, in practice, the use of religion is used politically. Religious texts and beliefs are manipulated by those in power to gain control, and implemented through coercion, laws, intolerance, and violence. Religion is used to legitimise the divine, whereby what is considered religious is rendered unchangeable, having a single, often limiting, interpretation. Non-fluid definitions of culture, religion, nationalism, ethnicity, or sect result in exclusionary, patriarchal, and intolerant communities, and in justifying oppressive and discriminatory practices that deny services and rights, often to the most vulnerable and marginalised. (7,8)

Through interpretations of religious texts, women's positions within the family and community are defined through the need for her constant protection from perceived physical harm, to uphold and protect her virginity to preserve her own and family honour, and to prove her fertility to increase the religious following or continue the male line. A girl is seen to be under family control throughout her lifecycle, where her ownership is transferred from the father to husband and sometimes an adult son. She is neither an equal nor able to make decisions regarding her body and sexuality. (9,10) Spousal consent is required to access SRH services, which is derived from religious justifications related to decision-making and ownership of women's bodies. (11)

In relation to young people's SRHR, narrow interpretations of religion are used to prevent rights-based engagements and to enforce controls and conditioning on reproduction, sex, and sexuality.

Much is invested in protecting a set belief system considered to be a divine infallible interpretation, preventing the space to develop counter-narratives, using such beliefs to increase the religious following and maintaining a certain 'accepted' social order. As the findings from national studies undertaken by ARROW and national partners in Bangladesh and India (12) will show, religion is couched with non-inquiry, lack of critique, secrecy, taboo, and sinfulness, unless engaged within commonly accepted parameters. Those who are seen to falter or disobey have to be shunned and punished.
   Comprehensive Sexuality Education:

   Ensures the provision of age-appropriate,
   culturally relevant, and medically/
   scientifically accurate information to
   young people using human rights and
   gender-sensitive approaches that are
   implemented in schools and out-of-school.

   It equips them with the knowledge, skills,
   attitudes, and values that enable the
   development of a positive view of their
   sexuality, in the context of their emotional
   and social development. (16) CSE helps
   counter the negative impact that cultural
   values and religious beliefs have on
   understanding and manage relationships
   with parents, teachers, and
   communities. (17,18,19,20)

Religion as a Barrier to Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE). (13) Findings from the national research in India (focusing on selected areas in Tamil Nadu State) (14) and in Bangladesh (15) illustrate how the influence of religion limits CSE for young people.

Despite India being a secular democracy and equality being enshrined in its Constitution, the influence of Hindu fundamentalist groups has been on the rise, including joining mainstream politics at the state and Centre/ federal levels. (21) Hindu fundamentalism evolved around 'Hindutva' or Hindu-ness, actively promoted by right-wing groups as a symbol of national identity and unity, claiming moral superiority of the Hindus over others. (22) It opposes certain aspects of modernity and promotes nationalist feelings to protect the Indian culture. (21)

Addressing the needs of the growing youth population in India is not helped by these forces. Talking to young people on matters relating to sexuality and reproduction emerged in India from concerns related to population control and the spread of HIV. (23) Despite having a number of youth-focused policies, (24) India has not managed to adequately address young people's SRH needs, and there are wide implementation gaps. (25) Studies have shown that Indian youth are inadequately informed to make responsible SRH decisions, as their knowledge on sex, pregnancy, contraception, and STIs is limited. (26) Matters related to sex and sexuality are taboo, especially for young people, and sexuality education is voluntary. (27) The Adolescence Education Programme (AEP) was introduced to adolescents in all Central Board of School Education in 2006 in an attempt to improve youth capacities, but the programme received heavy opposition from some state governments on the grounds that it corrupts young minds and encourages sexual experimentation. (28) Hindu conservative and fundamentalist groups also opposed the content, resulting in state bans during this time. (29)

In Bangladesh, the limited gains in primary and secondary education enrolment rates are further challenged by the nature of CSE available. Poor quality of education, lack of equal access to education, and high dropout rates continue to make school access limited for many, especially girls, despite primary education being free and compulsory. (30) The education system is broadly divided into primary (grades 1-5), (31) secondary (grades 6-10), (32) and tertiary education. While most children at the primary level study are in government and registered non-government schools, NGO-run schools and religious schools (Madrasahs), some of which are unregistered, operate. Madrasahs are almost entirely in the non-state sector, operating at primary and secondary levels (33) and outside of the formal sector. (34)

Despite ensuring minority rights, the Constitution of Bangladesh declares Islam as the state religion. (35,36) The rise in religious extremism and related ideologies has its roots in the influence of Saudi Arabia's Wahhabism ideologies and greater calls for nationalism from radical groups for the protection of Islam by following strict interpretations. This played out in the systemic abuse of minority rights, limiting rights of secular Muslims and women, and killings of atheists and sexual rights activists in recent times. (37) The policy mechanisms on SRHR are weak. (38) Young people suffer from negative sexual and reproductive health outcomes, (39) and attempts to strengthen CSE in the secondary school curricula has been limited with the focus in content largely being on biology and control of behaviour. (40) Young people are unable to access SRH-associated care and information and have to get parental consent to access services, adding further barriers. (41)

Who Decides for Young People? While empowering young people to make decisions is integral to CSE, this is not always the case in practice. When considering components of CSE in schools, decision makers and community stakeholders have varying ideas on the contents and programming that are informed by religious and cultural beliefs and singular teachings, rather than conceived from evidence. This manifests through notions of socially acceptable behaviour, the need for cultural and religious preservation, behavioural control, and prevailing narrow mind-sets of educators which are influenced by narrow religious beliefs and their attempts to protect practices.

Moral outrage against sex before marriage, especially for young women, persists among parents in parts of Tamil Nadu. Together with a high value being attached to marriage to an 'ideal' and 'acceptable' partner, this is indicative of the lack of rights-based frameworks. (42) Young women are expected to be sexually inexperienced, and premarital sexual activity is stigmatised, thus inhibiting access to information and services. (3)

In Bangladesh, the inclusion of CSE in the secondary school curriculum, as well as its content, are controlled by policymakers based on notions of religious and cultural acceptability. Parental agitation led to the removal of topics on gender discrimination and the biological aspects of puberty and reproduction from the secondary textbook, while retaining information on 'appropriate' behaviour, virginity, and cleanliness. (15)

Moreover, teachers in Bangladesh do not have specialised training to teach CSE. Their perceptions, which are also influenced by their religious beliefs, impact teaching technique and topic selectivity. Teachers also struggle with the embedded understanding and traditions instilled in students by others, such as family. They do not create an atmosphere where students can speak openly; they gloss over topics, informing students that they would learn these in detail at a higher grade. There is also a notion that young people need to be protected from this information, which could be an approach of dealing with the embarrassment that teachers face due to their own inhibitions. Female teachers find it more challenging than male teachers. (15)

In the case of Tamil Nadu, parents showed a general acceptance of friendships between boys and girls, and consider sexual attraction between opposite sex as natural; however, same-sex relationships were not even considered. Further, the actions of young people were seen as needing policing, as dictated by religious interpretations to maintain the status quo. In Bangladesh, there is a lack of parent-youth communication on sexuality. It is also seen as the responsibility of the mother rather than both parents. (14)

What Comprises CSE? In the Indian study, while parents' awareness of CSE is low, many seem to be in favour of education that includes gender, gender-based violence, and STIs. However, they seem not to be in favour of topics like sexuality and sexual relations, which are not considered important when unmarried. Parents expressed reservations to contraceptive and abortion services for youth. (14)

When opinions were favourable, they feel this education is more beneficial to girls, highlighting the influence of gender norms, gender-specific roles, and responsibilities. Abstinence-only education is preferred as it attempts to discourage experimentation and pre-marital sex, implying that a sex-positive approach--which acknowledges sexuality without reinforcing notions of fear, shame, or taboo--may not be welcome. (14)

In Bangladesh, SRH education is dominated by discourses that are linked to health or morality, emphasising biology and the stigma attached to sexual activity (such as teen pregnancies, infection, abuse, or violence). Textbooks distributed by the Bangladesh Madrasah Education Board replaced visuals of the young male and females with girls in hijab (43) and boys wearing prayer caps, (44) denoting ideal depictions of youth. School textbooks for Secondary and Madrasah streams (2014 and 2015) include physical and psychological changes during adolescence, sexual harassment, puberty, and drug abuse. The text advises girls to inform mothers of first menstruation, take care of personal hygiene, wear clean clothes, and use soft germ-free cloth or sanitary napkins. Boys are advised to consult fathers or male guardians for the first ejaculation for hygiene information.

Thus, reference is to the prohibition of sex (considered haram or forbidden in Islam), and to notions of cleanliness and purity, all of which have religious connotations (e.g., the inability to engage in prayer, fasting, or other religious acts). Information on sexual harassment focuses on religious interpretations of the need to protect girls, ensure their passivity, and limiting attraction to the opposite sex. Discussions on sex focus on women's behaviour, emphasising abstinence, preserving morality, and carrying-out religious obligations. Information on HIV and AIDs is dated, discriminatory, and incomplete, with the reference to same-sex activity as the cause of transmission. Here too, the religious influence prevails in how information is presented and the lack of rights-based approaches of the same. The textbooks present mistrust, inability to exercise control, and instil fear to deter unacceptable behaviour. (15)

Who Are Missed Out? In both Bangladesh and India, the impact of the lack of CSE on those affected by the child and early marriage is raised here given the high prevalence in both countries and the tendency to stop schooling. (45) The inclusion of CSE in earlier grades can help meet the needs of these children to some extent in the interim to eradicate the practice. Even when sexuality education exists, it does not reach young people who are out of schools in Bangladesh and India as the focus is provision within schools. (46)

Ensuring CSE for Young People. CSE is not only about sex nor is it about encouraging sexual activity, but rather recognising that regardless of socio-cultural and religious restrictions on behaviour, young people are making choices and being sexually active.

Young people have to be equipped to make choices and decisions that affect their bodies and lives devoid of fear, stigma, discrimination, and coercion. (3) The stigma associated with sex and sexuality should be addressed by drawing on rights frameworks, youth experiences, and principles of inclusivity.

Barriers hindering access to rights-based sexual and reproductive health information and services need to be addressed. This includes addressing religion's influence on policy and decision making. Creating non-judgemental and non-discriminatory safe spaces within religious environments for young people to enable discussion, questioning, and learning without judgement and coercion is crucial.

The need to ensure spaces for multiple interpretations of religious texts has to be ensured, which encourage analysis and discourse, ensure human rights, and meet the real needs of young people.

Good education curricula that are concerned with the broad range of content, that is evidence-based and learning-oriented, are essential. All stakeholders have to be equipped to transfer information and enable access to services. This includes building skills and changing attitudes of educators, as well as educating parents, caregivers, and other stakeholders in communities, including religious leaders, to change perception, and encourage rights-based inter-generational interaction. Mutual respect, trust, and instilling the ability to make informed decisions are also critical components.

Finally, young people are not a homogenous group and specific needs of marginalised young people need special attention that is also devoid of religious interpretation, fear, and shame.

Azra Abdul Cader

Programme Manager, Monitoring and Evidence Generation for Change, ARROW | Email: | Twitter:


Notes & References

(1) United Nations defines adolescents as those between 10-19 years and youth between 15-24 years. These groupings make up young people between the ages of 10-24 years. UNDESA, Factsheet: Definition of Youth (undated), accessed October 5, 2016, http:// fact-sheets/youth-definition.pdf.

(2) Sivananthi Thanenthiran, Sai Jyothir Mai Racherla, and Suloshini Jahanath, Reclaiming and Redefining Rights: ICPD + 20: Status of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in Asia Pacific (Kuala Lumpur: Asian-Pacific Resource & Research Centre for Women, 2013), accessed May 5, 2016, my/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/ICPD-20 Asia-Pacific_Monitoring-Report_2013.pdf.

(3) UNFPA, UNESCO, and WHO, Sexual and Reproductive Health of Young People in Asia and the Pacific: A Review of Issues, Policies and Programmes (Bangkok: UNFPA, 2015), accessed September 10, 2016, http://unesdoc. pdf.

(4) Knowledge on the use of condoms to prevent HIV and AIDS is better than knowledge of access to condoms, albeit girls have lesser knowledge than boys. Knowledge on other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is low amongst youth.

(5) UNICEF, "Early Marriage: Child Spouses," Innocenti Digest, 7 (2001), accessed September 13, 2016, publications/pdf/digest7e.pdf.

(6) Reference to religion in this piece refers to the misuse of religious ideologies, narrow interpretations of religion, fundamentalisms, and extremism.

(7) Karima Bennoune, Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism (NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 2013).

(8) ICAN and AWID, Extremism as Mainstream: Implications for Women, Development & Security in the MENA/Asia Region, accessed October 6, 2016, http://www.icanpeacework. org/dev/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/ Extremism-as-Mainstream.pdf.

(9) Centre for Reproductive Rights, Child Marriage in South Asia: International and Constitutional Legal Standards and Jurisprudence for Promoting Accountability and Change (2013), accessed October 6, 2016, sites/ ChildMarriage_BriefingPaper_Web.pdf.

(10) Shah Iqbal, "Growing Fundamentalisms: A Grave Apprehension for Women's Rights in Pakistan," ARROWs for Change, 14, nos. 1 & 2 (2008): 8-9, accessed October 6, 2016, http://

(11) UNESCO, Young People and the Law in Asia and the Pacific: A Review of Laws and Policies Affecting Young People's Access to Sexual and Reproductive Health and HIV Services (Bangkok: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2013), accessed May 5, 2016, http://unesdoc.unesco. org/images/0022/002247/224782E.pdf.

(12) This research is an initiative of a regional partnership working on building the interlinkages of religion (fundamentalisms and extremisms) on SRHR by generating evidence and engaging in national and international advocacy. The ten partners are Ikhtyar (Egypt), Likhaan Centre for Women's Health Inc. (Philippines), Moroccan Family Planning Association (Morocco), Naripokkho (Bangladesh), Rural Women's Social Education Centre (India), Society for Health Education (Maldives), Shirkat Gah (Pakistan), Sisters in Islam (Malaysia), Women and Media Collective (Sri Lanka), and Yayasan Kesehatan Perempuan/Women's Health Foundation (Indonesia).

(13) This section presents selected findings from the research in Bangladesh and India.

(14) P. Balasubramanian, Rajalakshmi Ram Prakash, and N. Srilakshmi, National Report: India-Religious Fundamentalism and Comprehensive Sexuality Education in South India (Tamil Nadu and Kuala Lumpur: Rural Women's Social Education Centre and Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women, 2016), accessed December 6, 2016, uploads/2017/03/5.-India.pdf.

(15) Nazme Sabina, National Report: Bangladesh-Religious Extremism and Comprehensive Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in Secondary and Higher Secondary Education in Bangladesh (Naripokkho and ARROW: 2016), accessed December 6, 2016, wp-content/uploads/2017/03/National-Report-Final-with-cover.pdf.

(16) At the same time, service provision should take this rights-based focus, providing nondiscriminatory, non-judgmental services to help young people understand their sexuality and protect them from unwanted pregnancies and STIs.

(17) SIECUS, "What the Research Says ... Comprehensive Sex Education," Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (2009), accessed December 6, 2016, cfm?fuseaction=Page.ViewPage&PageID=1193.

(18) UNESCO, International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education: An Evidence-informed Approach for Schools, Teachers and Health Educators, Volume 1: The Rationale for Sexuality Education (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2009), accessed December 6, 2016, images/0018/001832/183281e.pdf.

(19) UNFPA, UNFPA Operational Guidance for Comprehensive Sexuality Education: A Focus on Human Rights and Gender. United Nations Population Fund (2014), accessed December 6, 2016, files/pub-pdf/UNFPA_OperationalGuidance_ WEB3.pdf.

(20) UNFPA, Programme of Action adopted at the International Conference on Population and Development Cairo, 5-13 September 1994: 20th Anniversary Edition (United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), 2014), accessed December 6, 2016, international-conference-population-anddevelopment-programme-action.

(21) Chayanika Shah, "Hindu Fundamentalisms in India: Examining Impact and Responses by the Women's Movement." ARROWs for Change 14, nos. 1 & 2 (2008): 1-3, accessed October 13, 2016, uploads/2015/04/AFC-Vol.14-No.1-2008_ Religious-Fundamentalism.pdf.

(22) Marilen Danguilan, "Keeping the Faith: Overcoming Religious Fundamentalisms," ARROWs for Change 14, nos. 1 & 2 (2008): 1-3, accessed May 13, 2016, wp-content/uploads/2015/04/AFC-Vol.14No.1-2008_Religious-Fundamentalism.pdf.

(23) Ketaki Chowkani, "Sexuality Education: Why We Need It," Teacher Plus (2013), accessed May 13, 2016, http://www.

(24) For instance, the National Youth Policy 2014 and the National Adolescent Reproductive Health programme 2014 that both aim to help youth reach their potential, with the addition of making informed choices and the importance of a holistic development in the latter. In Balasubramanian, et al, 2016.

(25) Palanisamy Balasubramanian, Country Profile on Universal Access to Sexual and Reproductive Rights: India (Tamil Nadu and Kuala Lumpur: Rural Women's Social Education Centre and ARROW, 2015), accessed June 19, 2016, country-profile-on-universal-access-to-sexualand-reproductive-rights-india/.

(26) National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2005-2006 and International Institute of Population Sciences 2006-2007, In Balasubramanian, et al, 2016.

(27) Gupta, et al, 2012. In Balasubramainan, et al, 2016.

(28) Rajalakshmi, 2007. In Balasubramainan, et al, 2016.

(29) Dasgupta, 2008 and TARSHI, 2008. In Balasubramainan, et al, 2016.

(30) UNICEF 2009. In Sabina, 2016.

(31) Under the purview of the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education.

(32) Under the purview of the Ministry of Education.

(33) Classified in two broad categories: Aliya Madrasahs and Quomi Madrasahs. Aliya Madrasahs follow government regulations as prescribed by the Madrasah Education Board, which approves curriculum from primary to master's level and students are taught both religious and general education. Dakhil is the secondary level of the Aliya stream (grades 6 to 10) which ends with an examination set by the Madrasah Education Board, and is equivalent to the Secondary School Certificate (SSC). The Quomi Madrasahs operate outside the state sector, which concludes with a Hadith Certificate.

(34) Maktab (or Nourani Madrasah) and Furqania/Hafizia Madrasahs.

(35) See "Bangladesh's Constitution of 1972, Reinstated in 1986, with Amendments through 2011," accessed May 17, 2016, https:// Bangladesh_2011.pdf.

(36) It declares secularism as one of the four fundamental principles of state policy (Part 2.8). It states that it shall be realised through the elimination of communalism in all forms, favouritism of religion in politics, abuse of religion for political purposes, and discrimination as a result of religious practice (Preamble and Part 2.12). Other religions are given equal status. In Sabina, 2016.

(37) Lintner. In Sabina, 2016.

(38) Elements of SRH are captured in the National Population Policy (2010), Health Policy (2011), Maternal Health Strategy 20112016, and Integrated National Policy on HIV/ AIDs and STI-related Issues and Adolescents Reproductive Health Policy 2006. In Sabina, 2016.

(39) Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey 2014. In Sabina, 2016.

(40) Bhuiyan, 2014. In Sabina, 2016.

(41) Naripokkho, undated. In Sabina, 2016.

(42) Based on research sample that employed quantitative and qualitative techniques including a sample survey in Tiruporur Block in Kanchipuram district amongst parents. In Balasubramanian, et al, 2016.

(43) A veil covering the head and chest, which is worn by Muslim women after puberty when in the presence of adult males relatives and others.

(44) A short and rounded skullcap worn for religious purposes.

(45) Rachel Vogelstein, Ending Child Marriage: How Elevating the Status of Girls Advances U.S. Foreign Policy Objectives (Council on Foreign Relations, 2013), accessed September 13, 2016, attachments/Ending_Child_Marriage_report. pdf.

(46) UNICEF, South Asia Regional Study: Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka (UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia, 2014), accessed September 13, 2016, https://www. Study__Executive_Summary_26Jan_14Final.pdf.
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Title Annotation:spotlight
Author:Cader, Azra Abdul
Publication:Arrows For Change
Geographic Code:9BANG
Date:Mar 1, 2017
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