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            Volume 11 |Issue 06| February 10, 2012 |


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Dr Sajeda Amin from the Population Council's headquarters in New York welcoming everyone to the programme launch of the web version of the It's All ONE Curriculum-Activities in Bangla. Photo: Courtesy

Overcoming Silent Barriers

Sharmin Ahmed

Nilima, a twelve-year-old student of Under Privileged Children’s Educational Programs (UCEP) School, was perplexed when she heard their principal announce that one of her favourite teachers, Shahnaj Begum, would be counselling them about health issues, sexuality, gender, human rights and also take classes on them. “Apa why did you agree to do it? Won't you feel awkward? Are you sure you want to teach us all (boys and girls) in the same room?” These formed just a small portion of the many questions that Nilima and her class mates pondered upon. As important as these issues are, it is a social norm to just not discuss them. A few parents even came to talk to the principal of the school about their decision. “Most of the parents were against it although a few did congratulate us in our efforts and wanted extended briefing on what we were going to discuss and how we would impart knowledge on sexuality to the students,” says Begum.

Dr Faustina Pereira who teaches Human Rights and Gender Studies at BRAC University says, “The idea that 'sex' is a part of a normal, basic and a required concept as every other living need such as health and safety has to be established. It has to be normalised and then the issue of rights and satisfaction needs to be dealt with. So it is very important that academic curriculums include sexuality, gender and human rights.”

Education Minister Nurul Islam Nahid making a speech at the launching programme. Photos: Courtesy

Gender norms profoundly affect young people's ability to make and implement decisions regarding their own sexual lives. For example, traditional norms around femininity and masculinity encourage promiscuous behaviour among males and discourage sexual knowledge and assertiveness among females. Such norms have been linked to riskier sexual behaviour, including lower rates of condom use, and to adverse sexual health outcomes, such as higher statistics of sexually transmitted infection (STI) symptoms. Coerced and forced sex are not only violation of human rights, they have been linked to HIV infection and unwanted pregnancy. Yet most sexuality and HIV education curricula focus on biology, anatomy, physiology and individualistic models of decision-making. Gender is either tracked on at the end or completely absent. When one looks at the data of the evaluated ones, among even the well implemented curricula, a minority have had an effect on unwanted pregnancy or on STI infection. Dr Pereira adds; “In Bangladesh the concept of 'marital rape' is almost non-existent even though it has very serious implications. Issues of these kinds are highly sensitive in closed societies like ours.” Laila Rahman, Senior Programme Officer of Population Council, explains that a behavioural study showed that the attitude towards 'the right of men to beat up their wives' despite educational briefing was accepted as a norm. This obviously demonstrates the bias and dependence on cultural practices and social norms.

Given the urgency of the HIV epidemic and the high rates of STIs among many young people, especially girls, it is high time that something more effective be done.

These concerns brought to the fore front by Population Council, have led to a group of organisations to develop 'It's All ONE Curriculum -Guidelines and Activities for a unified approach to Sexuality, Gender, HIV, and Human Rights Education.' The organizations who were involved consisted of Girls Power Initiative (Nigeria), CREA (India), Mexfam (Mexico), International Women's Health Coalition, International Women's health Coalition, International Planned Parenthood Federation/London and IPPF/Western Hemisphere Region.

The curriculum enables educators to address the social determinants of sexual and reproductive health and well being as well as individual determinants of sexual activity. There are quite a few things that it focuses on. It consists of a comprehensive understanding of the psychological and health topics, human rights and values and gender so that sexuality, HIV prevention, or family life education is covered thoroughly.

The curriculum's activity book is designed to promote critical thinking by the usage of scenarios where one has to understand and assess the relationship between oneself, others and society. Therefore, it provides a basis for extending sexuality, and HIV education into civics, social studies and language arts classrooms.

One of the most seminal parts of the curriculum package is the project based learning module on advocacy and social change. It guides educators, civics and social studies teachers in ways to use methods to promote young people's involvement in their communities. Dr Noor Mohammad of UNFPA who at the launching ceremony of the Bengali website of the curriculum, discussed sexual and reproductive health, rights and HIV says, “The complexities are many; there are gaps, challenges and opportunities.” He explains that the education process cannot be forced or speedily imposed onto the learner, so a curriculum requires build up by time and proper monitoring. Also advocacy is very important but it is something that requires a lot of learning on this part of the world. It is very difficult to advocate and advise people on how to address the challenges they often face regarding, sexuality.

The curriculum is already being implemented in various schools in Dhaka with support from the UNFPA. The Population Council has translated the Activities part of the curriculum book titled 'Shokol Nie Ekok Shikhakrom: jounota, gender, HIV ebong Monobadhikar Shikkhai ek-i dhoroner Approach er jonno Karjokrom' (a unified approach to Sexuality, Gender, HIV and human Rights education). Education Minister Nurul Islam Nahid was present at the programme launch of the web version. Begum says: “It is a very good curriculum because it is very helpful while handling or discussing the sensitive issues that the young people may raise when we discuss sexuality and gender.”

Dr Shafiqul Islam who is also a professor at BRAC University says, “The Bengali version of the book requires rigorous editing, although I must admit it was a very challenging task and the efforts were commendable. To tell the truth these issues are so sensitive on so many levels here in Bangladesh that language also becomes a very crucial and critical factor. Dr Faustina also supports this opinion saying: “The exact translation of 'sexuality rights' is not available”.

The promotion of Sexuality, Gender, HIV and Human Rights Education in Bangladesh is a daunting task that will take a long time to be adapted in Bangladesh. However, the initiative should be appreciated and encouraged and the curriculum should be adapted in proper stages so that its purpose is served.

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