Teaching Sexual Education to Children

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The term “sexual education” in Malaysia usually calls to mind the sexual act itself, which is perhaps why it is not permitted to be taught as a standalone subject in schools. Instead, it is incorporated into other subjects, such as Moral and Islamic Studies, and Science and Biology under the Reproductive and Social Health Education (PEERS) programme introduced in 1989. Its prime focus is on abstinence.1

However, globalisation, urbanisation and access to social media continue to heighten young people’s curiosity about sex though, belying the more conservative views of their parents and the country’s policymakers. To bridge this widening gap, the Women’s Centre for Change (WCC) actively works with primary and secondary school students, and youths from colleges and universities, through interactive personal safety and youth programmes to raise awareness about sexual harassment and violence, at the same time educating them about their rights and responsibilities.2

Sexual and reproductive education should be taught from a young age, so children don’t fall victim to sexual abuse.

A comprehensive sexual and reproductive education programme should encompass five components: the first should focus on human development; this is as simple as knowing your body parts, and what happens during puberty and gender identity. The second addresses sexual health and behaviour, covering lessons on sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), contraception and pregnancy. The third explores the boundaries of romantic relationships and dating, and what constitutes a healthy relationship as opposed to an unhealthy one. The fourth discusses the importance of cultivating interpersonal skills, including teaching youths about conflict management, and how and what they can do to negotiate themselves out of risky situations. The last component discusses gender diversity and roles versus societal expectations.

“The outreach programmes WCC conducts place more emphasis on the last three components as our main goal is to end violence against women and children,” says Hana Husni, WCC’s project officer. “We believe sexual and reproductive education should be taught at a young age so children don’t fall victim to sexual abuse. This can go anywhere from grooming to date rape and incest. Our programmes are conducted in small groups and are tailor-made to be ageappropriate – we don’t want to overwhelm the students with too much information.”

The “Bijak Itu Selamat” (Be Smart Be Safe) programme is aimed at primary school students. “In this programme, we talk about the body – what is a good touch versus a bad one, and how the child can differentiate between the two. This we do by addressing the emotional aspects of the touches, and by encouraging the children to trust their inner voices. Students in the lower primary will be read the story ʻNina dan Rahsianya’ (Nina and Her Secret), about the grooming of a young girl and the ways she can extract herself from a bad situation.

We believe sexual and reproductive education should be taught at a young age so children don’t fall victim to sexual abuse. This can go anywhere from grooming to date rape and incest. Our programmes are conducted in small groups and are tailor-made to be age-appropriate.

“In the story we explore who she can trust and what she should do when she’s in danger. We encourage participation and questions from the children. But we also understand that Malaysian children are very shy, so we’ll make them write their questions down on paper instead, and sometimes we do get disclosures in the form of questions about inappropriate touching. We also work with the teachers and school counsellors to keep the communication lines open, so that if the children are ever in trouble, they would immediately know who to go to for help.

“For children aged between 10 and 12 years old, there is a VCD of cartoons and three short stories that depict real-life stories of children who have been sexually abused that we play in schools. There is a story about a shop keeper who sexually abused a 10-year-old boy, a neighbour molesting a little girl, and one of a girl who fought free from her brother-in-law. By showing both genders, we also want to get the message across that boys too are not invulnerable to sexual abuse.”

All WCC programmes are localised, and features characters from the three main ethnicities. “Our first editions only introduced stories of Malay characters. Vernacular school children found it harder to relate because they wrongly assumed sexual abuse cases mostly happen in Malay families. Even the teachers sometimes say, ‘Oh no, it just doesn’t happen in our communities.’ But we know that is untrue as we have access to statistics from the Royal Malaysia Police. So the teachers, as much as the students, need to know that this can happen to children from any race and gender.”

The “Respek” programme discusses the difference between gender and sex, gender expectations in relationships, and gender and violence against women. It also comes with a VCD of scenarios. A popular example is of a young couple who had just embarked on their first relationship, and the boy is pressuring the girl to have sexual intercourse. The story ends with the couple in a park and the girl looking uncomfortable in the boy’s embrace. “We purposely ended it that way to open up avenues for discussion. We don’t go to schools setting out to teach youths about the first two components of the sexual and reproductive education, but we discovered that they are usually quite open to discussing things that are on their minds, especially the boys. As a rule, we avoid lecturing; rather, we facilitate discussions. We’d ask them thought-provoking questions. For example, does touching prove love? If you’re not ready, why would a guy want to pressure you into doing it? And if you think you are ready for it, are you absolutely sure about going through with it? We also talk about their rights and responsibilities, age of consent, as well as the importance of cultivating interpersonal skills. At the end of the talk, we’d distribute leaflets and brochures, and encourage them to call WCC or drop us a message on our Facebook page if they have further questions.”

There is also a “Boys” programme, targeted at 16 and 17-year-olds to challenge the way they think about themselves and ultimately, the opposite sex. The aim is to start them on a path towards a positive attitude to women and a healthier concept of relationships between men and women, while “Finding My Voice”, targeted at 13 to 15-year-old girls, discusses diversity and the roles and responsibilities of girls versus societal expectations, with the intention of encouraging young girls to stand up and speak up.

WCC reached out to over 5,000 schoolchildren last year, mostly through word-of-mouth and invitations from educational institutions. “We have previously conducted talks for the visually impaired youths and the staff of the St. Nicholas’ Home as well. Currently there is an ongoing project to translate ʻNina dan Rahsianya’ into braille. We’re constantly looking for opportunities because at the end of the day, we want to reach out to as many people as possible. Our modules are also available online for those interested. 

In collaboration with local district education offices, the centre has also been providing training for teachers and counsellors for close to 20 years. “We train them on the running of the programmes, about how to delicately but effectively handle child sexual abuse cases and questions from students. Unfortunately, the take up rate is not very high. The reasons being it’s not in their KPI, and the teachers and counsellors are worried they may teach or say the wrong things.”

The “Cybersafety” programme is WCC’s latest endeavour, scheduled for launch in the second quarter of this year. Its components include sexting, online chat apps, cyberbullying and cyberstalking. “We discovered that an increasing number of sexual assault cases result from youths unknowingly befriending and sending nudes to predators through online chat apps like WeChat; it is very alarming. We have started conducting the programme in schools and it’s fast becoming one of our more popular workshops. Following its launch, we will begin training the teachers as well.”

Hana Husni (right) is the project officer for WCC.

1https://www.malaymail.com/s/1374393/government-working-on-more-comprehensive-sexeducation 2http://wccpenang.org/awareness-for-adults/



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