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‘Now we don't even know when someone is menstruating’

28 May 2019
What distinguishes CSE from standard sex education classes is its breadth: it comprises comprehensive, evidence-informed lessons for young people’s health and well-being. ©UNFPA Nepal

BAITADI — When he began teaching comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) a few years ago, Dhan Bahadur Mahara, the vice principal of Gyaneswor Secondary School, was embarrassed even by the thought of presenting the material to his students.

"I thought, should I skip this?" he says. "Should I just recite it and leave the classroom?”

CSE, a rights-based and gender-focused approach to sexuality education, was integrated into the school sector development plan by the Ministry of Education in 2016.

What distinguishes CSE from standard sex education classes is its breadth: it comprises comprehensive, evidence-informed lessons for young people’s health and well-being. Students are taught not only about human anatomy but also positive values regarding their sexual and reproductive health, as well as about rights, gender equality, violence and staying safe.

But soon after it was implemented, a major hurdle became apparent: teachers, embarrassed by the reproductive health and sexuality material, felt incapable of teaching it. Some shooed students of the opposite sex from the classroom before beginning a lesson, Dhan Bahadur says.

So a UNFPA project, funded by DFAT, set out to train teachers on how to better teach the subject, starting with a five-day workshop. Dhan Bahadur, one of the participants, says one of his main takeaways was the importance of teaching method.


Students are taught not only about human anatomy but also positive values regarding their sexual and reproductive health, as well as about rights, gender equality, violence and staying safe. ©UNFPA Nepal

“I realized we need to show things, we need to demonstrate,” he says. “We just recited the material before. Now we use visual material, we are interactive.”

But more consequential was the shift in attitude that it encouraged.

“Before, sometimes I wanted to laugh while teaching the material," he says. “I had to bite my tongue and go on. But after, I was open.”

The training, he says, taught him that by teaching the curriculum more frankly, teachers could make their students open up about their problems. And their reluctance to teach would only increase students’ reluctance to learn.

“At first I thought, how are they talking about these things, why aren't they shy?" says Manju Bhatt, a 12th grade student at the school. "During the first lesson, I couldn't look at the teacher's face."

Because her teachers were so matter-of-fact about the material, the students eventually overcame this, she says. “We found out that this is all natural, so I thought, why should we be shy about it?”

And the deeper value of the program, Manju says, came out in how she and the rest of the school approached social issues. In Baitadi, like much of the far west, menstruation is treated as a taboo, and it is normal for menstruating women to be segregated in both private and public settings.

“There's been change. Before, girls on their period sat apart from other people, now we don't even know when someone is menstruating,” says Basanti Awasthi, who is in the 11th grade.

They took this attitude home as well. “My parents used to tell us that the gods and goddesses would get angry if we go to school,” Manju says. As a result, she used to stay home for four days a month. “Every year I lost a month of class because of it! It affected my studies.”

After CSE was integrated into the curriculum, "I went to my mother,” she says. “I told her, ‘These things are not true, it's just biological.’”

The new knowledge has also, Manju says, given her a way to think about the harmful effects of chhaupadi, a tradition in which menstruating women live separately in an outside shed, called a chhau, and which her mother and older sisters practiced until just four years ago.

A major issue in Baitadi that Dhan Bahadur is concerned about is child marriage, common across Nepal’s far-west region. But while the prevalence of marriage forced by parents has fallen, adolescents still choose to elope on their own.


“We found out that this is all natural, so I thought, why should we be shy about it?”
©UNFPA Nepal

Dhan Bahadur believes that this is a result of a lack of education about sexuality and the consequences of child marriage. "They need to know what love is, and that it's possible to love in a good way," he says.

Dhan Bahadur is aware of the social change that lessons in CSE could bring about, and their importance to the daily lives of his students.

As a result, he says, he teaches for only 25 minutes of a 45-minute class. He spends the rest of the time fielding questions from students. After the training, he has also begun using a suggestion box so students can ask questions anonymously.

The potential for CSE’s relevance demands it be made even better in the future, he says. To increase its impact, local teachers should be involved in designing some of the lessons.