Once again, a religious organisation is asserting its right to determine the curricula in its denominational schools, particularly as it relates to sex education.
The country’s largest Hindu body, the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS), has taken issue with some of the content in a questionnaire sent out a few days ago by the Ministry of Education for its Health and Family Life Education (HFLE) programme.
Citing the 1960 Concordat signed between the state and religious bodies, SDMS legal adviser Dinesh Rambally maintained that sex education in the schools under the organisation’s control must be grounded in Hindu beliefs. He warned that “an unguarded and premature kindling of pubescent intrigue may have adverse consequences which run contrary to what is taught in the Hindu home.”
The underlying doctrines may vary but identical positions are likely to be taken by other religious bodies on the proposed HFLE.
Attempts to introduce the subjects of sexuality and sexual health into the curriculum always elicit strong responses, usually in the negative. Two years ago, Sport and Youth Affairs Minister Shamfa Cudjoe got strong push back from the T&T Council of Evangelical Churches when she advocated for sex education in schools and churches.
The council argued it is a sensitive topic that should be left in the hands of parents.
To be clear, sexuality and sexual health are among the topics in the ministry’s proposed HFLE programme, which covers a range of life skills and issues. It has not been fully implemented in the school system, not because of resistance from religious groups, but because there are no specific teaching positions or trained teachers to deal with it in the syllabus.
On the other side of this contentious issue, the Family Planning Association of T&T (FPATT) has long been calling for sex education to be placed on the syllabus, as it can be the basis for educating children about sexual abuse, a major problem in this country. The aim, according to the FPATT, is to equip children to recognise when they could be in danger of sexual abuse and exploitation and, as much as possible, avoid such situations.
It is also about teaching them about the risks of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV. These are the real-life issues that youngsters are more likely than not to encounter.
This country has a high teen fertility rate with approximately 2,500 pregnancies among school-aged girls every year. There is also the worrying trend of increased sexual activity among children of primary school age.
Add to that the almost daily reports about sexual abuse of children—including incidents involving relatives—and it is clear there is a serious problem to be addressed.
All things considered, greater effort must be made to arrive at a consensus, since there are valid concerns on all sides. The education consultations currently taking place provide a platform for very necessary dialogue.
This is not about encouraging irresponsible and premature sexual behaviour but equipping children with knowledge to keep them safe and healthy.