Sunday September 9, 2012
Frank and factual approach
BY PRIYA KULASAGARAN and KANG SOON CHEN
Sex education is not about corrupting children, it is about giving them a holistic view of sex, sexuality and reproductive health.
TWELVE-year-old Ali* says that he knows exactly where babies come from.
“No, my parents and teachers never said anything. My friends and I talk about it in school.
“My friends also showed me videos from the internet,” says the pupil from the Klang Valley.
What sort of videos might these be?
“You know... the ‘dirty’ ones,” he replies in a hushed, serious tone.
Meanwhile, secondary school student Angie Yeo* feels that she is still not getting the information she wants despite the sex education talks organised in her school.
“ I didn’t think the talks were very informative.
“Most of the information mentioned during the talks can be easily found in textbooks and other reading materials,” says the lass from Kedah.
What does she want to know more about?
“I think topics like rape; before those rape cases in the papers, I didn’t know much about such things,” she says.
Yeo is referring to the wide media coverage of the recent statutory rape judgments of former national youth squad bowler Noor Afizal Azizan and electrician Chuah Guan Jiu.
There is still a dearth of in-depth nationwide study of just how much young people know about sexual and reproductive health.
Ali and Yeo’s comments however, reflect the recommendations of the few studies available — there is an acute need for more effort in equipping youth with the right tools and knowledge to make good decisions.
A survey conducted by Universiti Sains Malaysia researchers in Kelantan last year for instance, offers alarming insight of the naivete of students when it comes to the birds and the bees.
Of the 1,034 secondary school students surveyed, only 30% correctly answered that just one act of sexual intercourse could cause pregnancy.
This may not be surprising as 64% of the students surveyed said they received knowledge about sexuality from friends – only 6.5% saw their parents as a source of information.
In Malaysia, elements of sex education have been part of the secondary school curriculum since 1989, and subsequently introduced in primary schools in 1994.
While not a stand-alone subject, sex education was meant to be covered across the curriculum, in subjects such as Biology, Science, Moral Education and Islamic Studies.
Currently, sex education in the local curriculum is known as Pendidikan Kesihatan Reproduktif dan Sosial (PEERS, or Social and Reproductive Health Education) – previously it was called Family Health Education (1989 – 2002) and Sexuality Education (2002 – 2005).
The name change occurred in 2006, when the Cabinet passed a comprehensive set of guidelines outlining how the subject should be taught in schools.
These guidelines were painstakingly formulated over the course of three years, and involved the Education; Women, Family and Community Development and Health Ministries.
It also included educators, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), health professionals as well as religious authorities.
Former Education Ministry parliamentary secretary Datin Paduka P. Komala Devi was among the individuals involved in coming up with the guidelines.
“The books (modules) were meant to help educators teach students, not the students themselves,” she says.
“The idea was that we give them reliable information so as to prevent them from seeking it out from the wrong sources.
Komala Devi further points out that sex education is not “about the mechanics of sexual intercourse”, but rather a holistic view of sexuality and reproductive health.
“We need to teach them about their own bodies, to have self-respect and respect others, sexual abuse prevention, and having healthy relationships.
“Of course, abstinence is presented as the best and ideal option, but we also need to give young people realistic information about contraception,” she says.
A review of the guidelines reveals a range of modules dealing with not just sexuality, but also gender, health and societal values. The modules outline age-appropriate content for the various topics, slowly building students’ knowledge as they mature.
For example, primary school children may start by learning about making good decisions and accepting responsibility for the consequences of their choices.
Then in secondary school, sex is introduced into the equation and students are encouraged to base their decisions from the health, legal, religious and social perspectives.
For teenagers in particular, the guidelines repeatedly acknowledge the emotional turbulence and pressures of being an adolescent and spell out ways of managing stress and peer pressure.
When detailing potentially controversial topics, the guidelines try to carefully reconcile frank discussion with cultural sensitivities.
The sexual orientation module for teens for instance presents the topic of non-heterosexuality in a neutral manner, but in the same breath states that homosexuality is against religious norms.
The guidelines recommend that children as young as four be taught to recognise sexual harassment and violence, and how to seek help should such assaults occur.
An example of this is the “touch continuum” that encompasses the difference between “good touch” and “bad touch”, as well as the difference between good and bad “secrets”.
In the overall discussion of sexual assault, the guidelines indicate a genuine effort to curb victim-blaming and dismantling stereotypes of sexual assaults.
There is also a great deal of emphasis on building self-esteem and treating others with respect.
Issues of body image are targeted at pupils from Year One, with the key lesson being that every individual is unique and deserves to be free of discrimination.
Media literacy is also brought into the picture, where children and teens are made to question the standards of beauty as well as gender stereo-types illustrated in mass media.
What remains unclear is how exactly these guidelines have trickled down into policies and the school curriculum.
The issue of sex education may be brought up every so often when there is public uproar over social ills; once the debate dies down, things appear to return to status-quo.
Education Ministry sources claim that the real cause of ineffective implementation is the lack of political will.
A telling evidence of politics coming into play is highlighted in Malaysia’s Global Aids Response Country Progress Report 2012 published in March.
Claiming that comprehensive sexual reproductive health education was still at “an impasse”, the report adds that: “Though it has been under discussion by various levels of government, implementation of this policy has been erratic due to opposition from various parties on moral and religious grounds.”
One concrete example of the guidelines’ influence so far is the KSSR - or Standard Curriculum for Primary Schools - which started with Year One pupils in 2011.
Under the KSSR, PEERS is taught within the Health Education subject, comprising 75% of the subject’s curriculum.
The topics covered are health and reproduction (mostly dealing with the physical and mental changes that occur during puberty); substance abuse; mental and emotional mangement; family issues; relationships; disease prevention; safety.
Additionally, the Health Ministry and Women, Family and Community Development Ministry together with NGOs have been steadily increasing their community outreach programmes and workshops targeted at children and teenagers.
Educators say that public opinions and misconceptions are still major factors barring effective sex education.
“Many parents don’t even realise that we have health education in schools.
“Some still think that ‘sex education’ means teaching children how to have sex!” laments one primary school teacher from Johor.
A secondary school teacher claims that he had to face a pair of angry parents after a lesson on the human reproductive system.
“The parents thought I was telling my students to go out and run wild because I had taught them a lesson on contraceptives!
“Thankfully I managed to appease them by explaining that I was just stating the facts, because I made sure to emphasise our society’s values with regards to pre-marital sex,” he says.
For the most part, it seems that teachers generally shy away from broaching the topic – only two of the 10 students interviewed by StarEducate say that they were taught sex education in school.
At the mention of the word “sex”, one Form Two student exclaimed that she did not how to respond and balked at answering any further questions.
Hailing from an all-boys school in Perak, Form Four student Wei* says that he appreciates his school’s direct approach to sex education.
“My school also organises workshops (on sexuality) from time to time; we had a speaker who had us in stitches with the stories he shared.
“Even though he made us laugh a lot, somehow he was successful in getting his message across,” he says.
A religious teacher from Negri Sembilan says while the topic is seen as taboo, teachers need to overcome their fears and address sexuality issues openly with their students.
“I initially felt uncomfortable talking about it with my students.
“But in this day and age, we can’t just keep things away from youth or they will try and find out information through unsavoury means.
“My approach is to give them the facts and explain why religious and moral values are important — by teaching them the right things, we have to trust them to make good decisions,” she says.
In light of the recent rape cases involving underage girls, All Women’s Action Society (Awam) president Ho Yock Lin says the organisation is planning to increase its outreach programmes for students with an emphasis on respect between the sexes.
“This is because many students are not aware of the power relations between males and females — in most situations, the boys are making more decisions while the girls are generally submissive to demands by the boys.
“Parents must understand that it is not possible to restrict the movements of their children ... this is why it is important to teach children ways to keep themselves safe,” she says.
* Names have been changed.