A total of 25 transgender students cleared 10th and 12th CBSE board examinations this year, but the recently released National Education Policy neglects the need of sex education in India, although it aims to create a ‘gender inclusive’ education for girls as well as transgender students.
A ‘Gender-Inclusion Fund’, to build the nation’s capacity in providing quality and equitable education, has also been planned. According to the NEP 2020, the fund will be available to states to implement priorities determined by the central government critical for assisting women and girls and transgender students in gaining access to education.
However, Dr Aqsa Shaikh, a transwoman and an Associate Professor of Community Medicine at HIMSR, Jamia Hamdard, Delhi, believes that it is all 'superfluous'. "The interests of transgender students have been neglected for decades. It’s good that the NEP is being revised after 34 years; we at least have a mention of the inclusion of transgender students into school education. However, it all appears superfluous, notional and we hope this is followed by detailed and definite action plans."
The policy changes, in fact, may just be a stepping stone to a larger conversation on sex and sexuality.
Transgender identities cannot be talked about in isolation. Gender is different from sex, which is again different from sexual orientation and this entire spectrum needs to be understood in the context of education.
"An intersex child can be both transgender and gay. So, to pick only the transgender identity and ignore others including intersex or LGB of the LGBTQIA+ would be sacrilegious," said Aqsa, who is also a doctor.
Are we missing the point of Gender, sex and sexuality education?
Besides the Gender Fund, the policy includes:
"The school curriculum will include, early on, the material on human values such as respect for all persons, empathy, tolerance, human rights, gender equality, non-violence, global citizenship, contribution of culture in sustainable development and sustainable lifestyle, inclusion, and equity. It would also include more detailed knowledge of various cultures, religions, languages, gender identities etc to sensitise and develop respect for diversity."
Harish Iyer, a well-known Mumbai-based LGBTQIA+ activist said, "Gender travels beyond the binary definitions of male and female and that understanding is deemed to be redundant unless there’s a thorough discussion around sex, sexuality and gender — and that’s what constitutes ‘sex education’."
"They might have gone beyond the binary definitions, but what about the different sexual orientation?" asked Dr Anuttama Banerjee, a consultant psychologist and academic mentor.
Citing examples of queer students who are often subjected to harassment in institutions, Dr Banerjee, who extensively holds workshops and seminars on Gender and Sexuality with various academic bodies, said, "When we talk about just gender inclusion fund, there might be further silence on sex and sexuality. If we don’t incorporate discussion around the same, the understanding of multiple struggles becomes redundant and silent". "I am far more worried about that," she added.
When a child refuses to be gender-conforming, they often face backlash from their own family and peers through verbal abuse and socially ostracization. The space of acceptance, according to experts, is difficult to create unless we talk to children about sex education, rights of genders — beyond the binary terms — which needs to be introduced in age and maturity-appropriate basis, however, in early life.
"Young children and adults, who are exploring their gender and sexuality may not be sure where they lie on the spectrum although it becomes fluid over time and situations. Without a nuanced understanding of this, one cannot provide reforms for gender-inclusive school education," said Aqsa.
Nikhil Saldanha, former sex and gender educator, said that the policy may look promising, but it doesn't have checks and balances in place. Saldanhal said that the groundwork needs to start with research on what is not happening and then specifying them, rather than having fluid recommendations.
India needs a lot of research that will bring forth the daily battles fought by children from the LQBTQ+ or transgender community and a timely intervention in institutions — gender and sexual education — makes it more effective.
"Why not reach out to organisations that are working in this area for years and seek their research-based evidence? Let’s understand that gender-identities traverse beyond females and transgenders, it’s about the entire LGBTQ+ community," said Nikhil adding that as a society we need to acknowledge that these students are not being allowed to engage with education in a way they should be and the document is another evidence to it.
When a child decides what their self-assigned gender is, that’s at a very early age.
Koyel Ghosh, a feminist-queer activist and a practising teacher in Kolkata held a similar opinion. She emphasised on the importance to orient the teachers. "Unless there’s a curriculum change for the teachers that will talk in details about how to deal with students from the gender and sex minority groups, the teachers themselves would consciously or subconsciously keep violating the rights of the children."
The policy does mention that teachers will be sensitised, but it doesn't mention how. It reads:
"What is also required is a change in school culture. All participants in the school education system, including teachers, principals, administrators, counsellors, and students, will be sensitised to the requirements of all students, the notions of inclusion and equity, and the respect and dignity of all persons."
Queer activists believe to make schools or learning environments gender-friendly, a lot of legal amendments and policy changes beyond the domain of education are needed.
"Let schools recruit counsellors, who are queer affirmative counselling practitioner. Counsellors should not be an extended rule of the institutions, trying to ‘fix a child’ as the problem lies in fixing ourselves. It has to be in a school culture that a counsellor can also freely approach the teachers and discuss the issue without inhibitions," said Nikhil.
Aqsa pointed out that a child at school has to battle cis-heteronormativity at multiple levels – from birth certificate, preferred name, gender, pronouns, uniforms, textbooks and curricula, extracurricular activities, uniforms, degrees, certificates or transcripts issued and so on. In addition, there are infrastructural barriers like classrooms, washrooms, common rooms, sports facilities, school buses and so on.
Aqsa also highlighted that one-size-fits-all-solution for a highly diverse country will not work. A transgender person in Tamil Nadu cannot be on the same page as a transgender person in Ladakh and these need to be considered when framing state-specific or localized policy edits or programs.
‘Everything looks good and seems inclusive, but it hardly does’
"The road to hell is paved with good intentions and it somewhat stands correct for the document,” said Harish adding, “India and it’s education sector has to open its eyes and ears to the idea of sex and sexuality. I don’t know how many more suicides are needed to understand the importance sex education."
A NCBI 2016 data states that the suicide rate among transgender individuals in India is about 31%, and 50% of them have attempted suicide at least once before their 20th birthday.
In spite of facing numerous hardships in their day-to-day life, the transgender community holds a number of resiliency factors.
"There has to be a severe understanding of what we are trying to address while speaking for the transgender community, as policymakers might not even be aware of the daily struggle of a transgender child," said Koyel.
The lived experience of the people cannot be substituted by the intellect of experts. Hence, experts state that the policy touching upon transgender issues is mere tokenism.
"The transgender community has been missing in the consultation process for NEP, which per se has undergone very little consultative process anyway," said Aqsa said. "Post-release consultation is absolutely mandatory to make it inclusive and acceptable to the community lest it remains as just one more dust-gathering policy file," she added.
While the policy aims at decolonization of education more than 70 years post-independence, there's a lot missing on the part about queer freedom.