Swati, who goes by the popular name of Maya's Amma on social media, says that sexuality education will go a long way in teaching children about consent and help prevent crimes.

Swati Jagdish
Features Sex Education Thursday, December 09, 2021 - 17:43

Sexuality education or sex education, as it's commonly known, is essential learning for young people. Yet, it is still a taboo topic that schools and parents are reluctant to approach. It is this that Coimbatore based Swati Jagdish, well-known as Maya’s Amma on social media, wants to change. In 2014, after she had Maya, her now seven-year-old daughter, Swati felt she had to do something important and unconventional for the betterment of society. She became a lactation educator and counselor and worked in the field for six years. Her experiences led her to believe that sexuality education is necessary to address many social issues, including crime. She is now a certified sex educator who has been practising for the last three years.

Swati is, however, not alone in doing this. She has a strong group working with her, called the Coimbatore Parenting Network (CPN). CPN is run by five women who speak about everything under the sun. Literally!

In an interview with TNM, Swati throws light on sexuality education, consent and boundaries, among other issues. She also speaks about how young parents can introduce sexuality education to their children and the measures that the government should take to reduce crimes against children.

Tell us about the Coimbatore Parenting Network (CPN) and your journey towards championing sexuality education?

After becoming a mother, I realised the need for peer support groups. Through Facebook, I met some like-minded mothers and that’s how we started in 2014. We started as a breastmilk support group also creating awareness on breastmilk donation. Gradually, we talked about health and hygiene as more people wanted to know about menstrual cups, cloth pads and traumatic birth experiences among other things.

CPN is run by five women trustees: Kumutha Chandrika, Aishwarya, Minu Gnanamoorthy, Gotha Hari Priya and Swati Jagdish. And through our journey, we aim to create a better life for as many as we can.

We conducted a slew of online awareness programmes during the pandemic. One of them was a natural birthing conference, which had 1,500 pregnant women attend across the globe. Workshops were also conducted on general parenting and identifying red flags in a relationship that benefitted close to 4,000 people. We also spoke about male anatomy, for those above 16 years, which benefited over 1,600 people.

Though we want to reach out to everyone, we are only given a female audience when we visit colleges. Hence we had to insist that men also sit. So, many such things happened in the journey that made me delve into sex ed.

Importantly, as I was starting out with sex ed, the Pollachi sexual assault case came to light. Exactly then I realised the importance of the topic.

From left to right: the five women trustees of CPN: Kumutha Chandrika, Aishwarya, Minu Gnanamoorthy, Gotha Hari Priya and Swati Jagdish.

A lot of people assume that sexuality education is just about sexual intercourse. Can you elaborate on what it covers?

Usually, in India, people think sex education is only about three things – sex, sexual abuse and pornography. However, that is not the case.

Sex education covers a slew of topics such as abstinence (not indulging in sex), adolescent development desires, body anatomy, child sexual abuse, consent, contraception, friendship, LGBTQIA+ community, masturbation, menstruation, parents-child communication, parents-teen communication, peer education, sexuality health education, pornography, pregnancy, pregnancy options and its prevention, positive sexuality, promoting healthy body image, puberty, child birth, self-esteem, sexual assault, online safety, sexually transmitted infections and a few more.

This might be surprising to many, but even ‘social norms’ are part of sex ed. This is because certain countries have different laws, for eg: age of consent in India is 18 years, while in many European countries, the age of consent is 14.

Overall when we talk about sex ed, the society we live in, the culture of the area, attitude of people, law in place — all play a role in sex education. Thus, the need to make it a separate subject for us to study in school is inevitable.

In many countries, there are sex educators giving age appropriate information according to each class while also encouraging discussions, showing resource videos, all this is part of the curriculum in schools abroad. India should consider this too.

You said dating comes under sex education?

Of course dating comes under sex ed, but it depends on the culture of the country. Though not spoken about openly, people here date. But we are yet to normalise it. Conservative families in our country frown upon dating, but when the so called conservative family moves abroad, they become all right with the culture.

Hence those kinds of things also impact sex education widely. If people become aware that sex ed is just an umbrella term and that it comprises a slew of topics, chances are, they might be open to learning it.

There are teachers in schools who objectify children when their hair is groomed in a stylish way or if the uniform is tight around the waist of a girl student. What do you think about this?

Firstly, I will not blame these teachers. Because they have not been trained to speak in a gender neutral manner or how to see patriarchy or realise that they are part of it. Interestingly, they might function with the same ideologies within their families, hence that is reflected in the society as well. We cannot blame anyone here because we are all part of the system.

Though I count myself as progressive, when my daughter wears short skirts to go out and play, I may tell her to wear leggings underneath. The intention behind this is not to objectify her with comments such as girls are supposed to dress in a certain way. But she may be more comfortable wearing pants when playing as it allows more free movement and flexibility.

The dialogue used should not make the child or the woman feel slut-shamed. Unfortunately, the majority of the society lacks this awareness.

During a meeting recently, a government teacher insisted that interaction between girls and boys should not be allowed. In fact, not to allow even the male teacher to interact with girl students. Though there are several awareness programmes for children and youngsters, there is nothing of that sort for teachers and parents. Hence if we start speaking to them, we can see a gradual change.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Swati Jagdish (@mayas_amma)

You speak about consent, sexuality and sex education in a conservative society. Tell us about your daily struggles?

The biggest challenge in sex education is that everybody has a certain belief attached to certain concepts. For instance, on abortion, while some might say that it is okay, others might say it is not.  In other cases, there are women who believe sex is only for conceiving a baby and there is no pleasure to it. There are different ideas, values attached to different concepts under sex education in our country. 

Also, a vast majority of us come from a generation that is too conservative to talk about sex education. For instance, most of our parents have not named the private parts with the right names, so speaking about it from that very basic level is going to be uncomfortable. 

Do you think the public understand the importance of sex education?

Most understand the importance of it, but are unwilling to learn. When we announce a workshop, the attendees are considerably low. We are glad even if we can impact five families through the session. But still, the turnout is largely poor.

When sexual crimes are reported, many point out that this is due to lack of sex education, but when there is a platform to learn about it, there is little interest shown from the vast majority. There are also certain inhibitions among people, like ‘Oh my god, she is going to talk about sex!’ ‘What will she say about sex in a public platform?’

Interestingly, it is mostly women and mothers who attend these workshops. Three years back too, I had only women as audience for my sex education classes. But though stigma among male parents is still prevalent, I notice that men are gradually attending the workshops too.

You say that sex ed can prevent crimes against women and children, but such crimes are widely prevalent in more open societies too. What do you feel?

Prevention of child sexual abuse is possible through sex education and that is a proven fact. Researches show that if certain awareness is provided, child sexual abuse can be prevented. Sex ed is only one method of preventing crimes against women and children.

Explain to us what gender spectrum related health education is?

Firstly, it is important to educate parents and teachers about the gender spectrum. It is crucial for each person to be familiar with gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation. Only if we teach this to parents, can they have a healthy communication with children.

Secondly, it is also important for children to have this knowledge from the school-level so that they can verbalise it. Many trans persons I've communicated with have told me that they felt different from their assigned gender from the age of 10 at least. Unfortunately, they were unable to verbalise it due to the lack of a safe and trusted environment.

How can sex ed reach the rural population of the country?

There is unfortunately a lack of awareness and discussions about this in urban areas, to begin with. There is only a small discussion about this in social media among those who exhibit a progressive attitude. I am often asked when I will go to rural regions and create awareness. But, unfortunately in my limited capacity, I can only reach out through social media sites and engage with groups nearby. Having said that, I strongly believe that this will spread to rural regions also. When pornography has reached everyone irrespective of rural and urban setup, sex ed will also reach everyone. Of course, with initiatives.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Swati Jagdish (@mayas_amma)

Which stakeholders do you think should be trained first, parents or teachers and by whom?

Training all parents is impossible. But it is easier to train each and every teacher in the state on sex ed. Hence the state government and respective district administration should come forward to train teachers in the first place. It is also a need of the hour. Also, in a rural region, a government initiative will be more effective than an individual's work.

What do you think the government should do to reduce crimes against children?

Education and awareness is the only way to avoid crimes. And importantly, comprehensive sex education can pave ways to reduce crime against women and children to a large extent. The government can take measures like setting up a committee or camera installations, but if a sex ed workshop is arranged and if it is better addressed, the potential abuser may avoid indulging in the act.

The predators must be warned, they should get that feeling that everyone is being sensitised, including children. We should stop treating the symptoms and address the cause.

Why do you think good touch and bad touch is an outdated and problematic concept?

In a wedding I attended, a few children were playing. One boy unintentionally pushed a girl while playing, and a parent there saw the girl child suddenly shouted saying – ‘Anna, did a bad touch to me’. Now this is problematic and dangerous.

Children will not be able to understand the intention behind the touch. We need to tap into the emotions and ask what the child felt at the point (while being touched). Did the child feel safe or unsafe?

The right words to be used are safe and unsafe touch. Another important thing to be noted here is that abuse does not have to be 'touch' all the time. When a sexual abuser targets a child, they will begin grooming the child by holding conversations and not touching. Once the abuser gains confidence through grooming the child, the next step is to physically abuse them. Hence until the touch happens, the child will not know that they are being abused and will never speak up.

Parents should focus on unsafe, uncomfortable, awkward, dirty and shameful feelings that children go through but seldom speak about. If parents notice something, the child should be asked what the reason is and if the person behaves differently when parents are not around.

Getting through this big layer of discomfort for young parents is difficult, as most have not spoken about it to their partners. However, we should get out of this zone for our own safety.

How can young parents introduce sex ed to their children?

Young parents can start sex ed with first naming the private parts and holding conversation about it without shame. Making the child feel there is a safe and trusted adult around them is important. It's also important to talk about safe and unsafe touch and behaviours, and keep a tab of what the child is doing and observe their behaviour.

Parents should also come forward and insist on sexual abuse prevention workshops in schools for teachers, staff, and children. This will force the school to talk about it and eventually prevent crimes.

How do we teach children about consent and understanding boundaries?

For both children and adults, their body is constantly communicating with them when their boundaries are violated by another person. However, we ignore these body cues and seek information from the brain that is well accustomed to societal norms.  For instance, those living in long abusive relationships have always known abuse is not acceptable. However, they have continued to live with it due to patriarchy.

Violating boundaries starts from non-sexual things. Society constantly violates the boundaries of a child from an early age —  such as force feeding children beyond capacity or dressing them in clothes that they refuse to wear. When the boundaries are repeatedly violated, the child will ultimately grow up as a teenager and an adult who cannot establish boundaries with people.

When it is cold weather, I as a parent will ask Maya if she is feeling cold, rather than assume she’s feeling cold, because everyone has a body anatomy. I cannot take ownership of it.

Recently, a young woman reached out to me alleging that her boss pinched her thighs while traveling in a car. Cases like this are clear boundary violations. The ideal thing to do here is report the incident. But most survivors do not complain due to fear.

Not just in sex ed, parenting, breastfeeding management, adult sexuality related issues, social problems, for all this and a slew of issues confronting society right now, age-appropriate knowledge about consent and boundaries is a must for all genders. Gradually, when we begin to understand this, we may have a safe and crime free environment for all.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Swati Jagdish (@mayas_amma)

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