Here is a simple exercise that mothers can try with their daughters. Get your daughter to lie on her back on a big piece of paper and draw an outline of her body. Then ask her to fill in the space by marking out all her organs. Nine times out of 10, even a girl going to a 'good' school will pause when it comes to the sexual organs. She will not know. Because she has never been taught properly where these are located and what they are.

Why does she need to know, people ask. Previous generations of women and men did not have such knowledge. So why does this generation need to be taught? The answer to that question is so obvious that it really does not need an answer. Today, girls have to be taught because they are more vulnerable than their mothers. They are encouraged to be out in the public space. They are made to believe that they can do anything with their lives. Yet they do not know enough about their bodies to understand how to protect themselves — from assault and disease. These are basic issues that boys and girls can be taught in a clear, clinical way in school. This is not pornography we are talking about. Sex should not be a dirty word. It is a 'fact of life', one that everyone has a right to know and understand.

By denying sex education, girls grow up being ashamed, confused and uninformed about themselves and their bodies. And are also rendered far more vulnerable.

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Therefore, the recent decision of the Maharashtra government, which follows in the footsteps of several other State governments including Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Gujarat and Karnataka, to ban sex education in all schools, is an issue that concerns everyone, but particularly women.

Path-breaking book

One of the path-breaking books on women and health is Our Bodies Ourselves by the Boston Women's Health Collective. First published in 1971 as a 193-page pamphlet titled 'Women and their bodies', it became a bestseller when published in 1973. With practically no publicity and virtually by word of mouth, it sold 2,50,000 copies. Since then it has sold over four million copies, been translated into 20 languages and has books based on its concept in another half a dozen languages.

What began as an informal collective of 12 women in 1969, the Boston Women's Health Collective has now become a non-profit organisation called Our Bodies Ourselves. On their website - - they explain, "We provide clear, evidence-based information about health, sexuality, and reproduction from a feminist and consumer perspective. We remain one of the few women's health groups in the U.S. that doesn't accept funds from pharmaceutical companies." The entire book is available on the website.

Our Bodies Ourselves is not a sex education manual. As its title suggests, it addresses issues relating to women's bodies and their related needs. The initial thrust of the group that wrote the book was to equip women to deal with the medical profession. How do you demystify medicine so that women do not lose control of their bodies, that they learn how to ask the right questions about medical interventions and drugs, that they learn enough to take preventive steps against disease? The group in fact called themselves 'The Doctors' Group' in that initial period.

Over time it grew into a manual that addresses much more than just physiology or disease. It looks at sexuality, at the politics of health and medicine, at the problems of poverty and race as they affect women's health, etc. It is written in such a simple and accessible style that anyone can follow it. This is the secret behind its success and the fact that women's groups in so many countries around the world have either translated the original or adapted it. In India, Anveshi Research Centre for Women's Studies in Hyderabad brought out Taking Charge of Our Bodies: A Health Handbook for Women in 2004 (published by Penguin). This is the English version of the Telugu book first published in 1991 titled A Hundred Thousand Questions about Women's Health.

These books are important because they give women the tools to understand their own bodies. Yet, not everyone welcomes such books. In the U.S., for instance, Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority attacked Our Bodies Ourselves in the 1980s, calling it "obscene trash". In India, even textbooks on sex education are attacked as obscene and considered a threat to 'Indian values'.

The need to be open

Instead of being open about these issues, in this country we would prefer young people not to know. So sex should not be talked about in school, we are told. And at home? As far as girls are concerned, the norm is to teach them through admonition. "Be careful", "Look how you're sitting", "Is this the way to walk?", "Behave yourself", "Cover yourself", "Don't be so shameless!" — the list is endless. By being reprimanded, girls are supposed to learn how to protect themselves without ever knowing why or from what. As a result, they grow up being ashamed, confused and uninformed about themselves and their bodies. And are also rendered far more vulnerable.

In this age of globalisation and the knowledge economy, we cannot pull down the shutters and believe that people's access to information on any subject, including matters relating to sex, can be controlled. Would it not be better to teach both boys and girls about these issues in an atmosphere that encourages them to ask questions and to clear their doubts? How can such knowledge be considered obscene or against 'Indian values'?