Sex is a taboo subject in our society, but there is a desperate need for nationwide sex education in schools especially, which goes beyond a brief overview of reproduction, and includes concepts like consent, contraception and the various forms of harassment.
It would be naive to suggest that sex education is the only solution to ending rape culture, but we cannot deny that it is undoubtedly a key component in combatting it. By teaching boys and girls about consent and bodily autonomy, we equip them with the knowledge to recognise and curb harmful behaviours before they escalate to sexual violence. UNESCO has identified this as the only long-term solution. Bangladesh needs sex education that is compulsory, comprehensive, and inclusive to people from all backgrounds. This education should be standardised across Bangla-medium, English-medium, urban and rural schools, and it needs to start from a young age. As Oroddho Foundation, a non-profit organisation working on social justice issues, have said, it is much easier to shape young minds than it is to intervene when they are older and less receptive to change.
Educating people about sex should be a multifaceted approach that explains the biological facts in accessible language, not scientific jargon. However, it shouldn't just stop at the science—we need education that is holistic. It needs to highlight the difference between consensual and non-consensual acts; the influence of coercion and peer pressure; the various forms of contraception available for both men and women and comprehensive information about sexual health and sexually transmitted infections.
Although Bangladesh is a secular nation, the conservative values held by society influence the way we approach certain topics that are stigmatised or still seen as taboo. Whether it's drugs, alcohol, tattoos or sex, the fact of the matter is that despite the disapproval of society in general, these things exist, and will continue to exist. It's human nature to have sexual feelings and to want to explore them. Repression tends to manifest in problematic behaviour at the very best, and at the very worst, sexual violence. Therefore, the concept of consensual sex must be ingrained in sexual education. It doesn't mean encouraging people to have sex—far from it. It is merely about ensuring that boys and girls are fully informed about sex and consent.
Our culture champions subservience in women and dominance in men, which inadvertently encourages entitlement. Entitled men don't respect boundaries, and therefore don't respect consent, which then leads to sexual violence. Sex education will teach that no one is entitled to intimacy, and emphasise the importance of respecting women, to see them as human beings in their own right and not inferior beings to be taken advantage of for someone else's pleasure.
We're so caught up in the idea of lojja (shame) that we avoid talking about sex, but do abusers have the same lojja? Are they bound by social stigmas? We fail to equip our children with the language to talk about sex in a healthy way because it is considered taboo. It's an uncomfortable subject for us to broach because the generations that taught us were even more repressed. We're privileged to have access to an abundance of information at our fingertips, but by not compounding this information with real-life conversations with qualified educators, we're letting impressionable minds learn about sex from unreliable sources, through pornography and peers who are just as ignorant.
We use nicknames for body parts because we're too shy to explicitly refer to them, but we shouldn't treat them like they are dirty words or things to be ashamed of. It's also crucial to discuss puberty with the same openness as we do anything else. We need to normalise talking about (to the extent that it is necessary) all natural bodily functions. Giving children the appropriate language to understand their bodies means they will be better at communicating if anything is wrong. When we teach children about sex the correct way, we're teaching them to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. Groping, inappropriate touching, molestation and sexualised comments all fall under the umbrella of sexual abuse.
We also need to teach children the importance of having agency over their bodies. How often do we see children being forced into physical contact—whether it's pressuring them to sit on a relative or family friend's lap, or hug or kiss them? When you ask a child to engage in any sort of physical contact and they say no, listen the first time. Respect their boundaries. If you don't, you are teaching them in their formative years that their discomfort is expendable, that their consent does not matter. This will take root somewhere in their subconscious and will re-emerge later on in life with potentially devastating consequences. Instead, we must do the opposite. We must empower them from early on, and give them the invaluable tool of bodily autonomy.
The more stigma we remove from sex, the more power we reclaim from abusers. Abusers capitalise on the hush-hush culture surrounding sex. They act with impunity because they bank on victims being too afraid to speak out lest they are labelled as "sluts" or that they were "asking for it". They rely on the fallacy of consent being valid if obtained through coercion. Not all rapists are strangers, and it's important to recognise that people of all genders, ages, backgrounds and occupations are capable of abuse. Statistically, there may be more men who are offenders than women, but there's still a percentage of men who are victims, who feel too embarrassed to speak out because they fear they'll be perceived as weak, and because of the misguided notion that women can't be rapists, or that men cannot rape other men. Sex education cannot overlook this. It must also consider the weaponisation of false rape accusations, and teach that it is detrimental to societal progress if people falsely accuse others in order to gain something.
Describing those who are guilty of sexual offences as "animals" or "monsters" only serves to "other" them. To refer to rapists as animals is to do animals a disservice. Referring to them as monsters equates them with fictional or abstract creatures, thus introducing a degree of separation from reality. And the reality is this: they are people. We must not allow them to hide behind metaphors.
The death penalty for rapists isn't a solution or a successful deterrent. It's a superficial victory; ultimately, no one is winning. Rape is rarely about the act of sex, but about exerting power. If we create a culture where people are sufficiently informed and can speak freely about these issues without fear of judgement, and without the possibility of conversations being derailed due to misinformation, we are detracting from said power. Punishment is necessary but it doesn't address the root cause. This is where sex education comes in. Feminists Across Generations, who provide a platform to those fighting against gender-based violence, have published a series of demands which tackle the multiple aspects of rape culture. They've recognised the significant part that schools play in perpetuating institutionalised rape culture and have highlighted the urgency with which we need sex education implemented around the country.
Sex education is pivotal in the fight against sexual violence. The existing legal framework involving sexual assault is in critical need of an overhaul, and policymakers must move swiftly to add compulsory sex education to school curricula across Bangladesh. The sooner we can do this, the sooner we can set the wheels in motion to undo generations of harmful thinking.
Zahrah Haider is a freelance writer currently working as an editor for the International Bar Association. All views expressed are her own.