Late August this year in the Klang Valley, an 11-year-old girl wrote a note to a boy in her school saying she wanted to have sex with him.
“Please,” she wrote, “just once won’t get me pregnant!”1
In recent months alone, a 12-year-old boy from Perak raped a four-year-old girl,2 and two cousins aged 11 and 12 from Sabah were caught having sex.3
All these beg the question: What are we teaching our children about sex?
Not very much, apparently. How far are we then ready to accommodate our discomfort of discussing the topic of sex at the expense of educating our children?
Whether we like it or not, children are curious creatures. They will learn about sex. If not from regulated sources, then from unregulated ones – peers, the internet, print media and so on. Some of these present very misconstrued ideas of sex.
What is then the best way to provide for a safe and regulated source of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) nationwide? It is not enough to just say, “Sex is a thing, stay away from it.”
In a recent survey by Penang Monthly involving 146 youths aged 15 to 30, a whopping 91.78% said they were sexually active. When asked where they first learned about sex, almost all of them (99.32%) checked the “Online” box; while only 6.85% said that they learned about sex from school. Yet, sex education was reportedly introduced in secondary schools in 1989.4 Where did all that education go?
Siti Aishah Hassan Hasri, a fierce advocate of CSE, explains that the Ministry of Education introduces aspects of sexuality as part of the syllabus in subjects like language, science, biology, Islamic studies and moral studies. It is concealed at best; non-existent at worst.
In 2018 Unesco published a freely available, revised version of the International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education (ITGSE). Its purpose is to aid countries in designing an effective and comprehensive curriculum on sexuality education for youths from the ages of 5 to 18 or older.
Audrey Azoulay, the director general of Unesco, writes in the foreword for ITGSE 2018 that the Guide has since its first introduction in 2009 contributed awareness about the importance of CSE worldwide. “Despite these advances, too many young people still make the transition from childhood to adulthood receiving inaccurate, incomplete or judgement-laden information affecting their physical, social and emotional development. This inadequate preparation not only exacerbates the vulnerability of children and youth to exploitation and other harmful outcomes, but it also represents the failure of society’s duty bearers to fulfil their obligations to an entire generation.”5
The resistance against comprehensive sex education in Malaysia is a complex one, but as Dr Prema Devaraj, the resource person for the Women’s Centre for Change (WCC) of Penang suggests, Malaysia is not alone in this struggle. “(We are) no different from many other countries around the world in having to balance adhering to religious beliefs and cultural practices with recognising sexual activity of youths,” says Prema.
“There is a need to first understand what is meant by sex education. It is not about how to have sex,” Prema asserts. CSE, when delivered by skilled facilitators, equips young people with the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to navigate with mature independence their personal journey of reproductive and sexual development. “Without appropriate information, knowledge and understanding, many young people are vulnerable to coercion, sexual exploitation, sexual manipulation, sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy,” says Prema.
Moreover, the 2018 revision of the ITGSE reports positive results from the implementation of CSE. Among these are, summarily, delayed sexual initiation, decreased frequency of sexual intercourse, reduced number of sexual partners, reduced risk-taking and increased use of contraception. This trend can then allow for further issues to be addressed, such as underage sex, baby dumping and unsafe abortions – all of which are not uncommon in Malaysia.
The Soroptimist Puberty Organising Toolkit (SPOT) has, to date, conducted training sessions in 43 primary schools across six states, reaching a total of 5,140 girls.
The inadequacies of sex education in Malaysia and the need for something to be done have not gone unnoticed. Some groups have taken it upon themselves to fill the gaps that exist in sex education in the country. WCC is one such group. Their main focus is to tackle a more concerning repercussion of an inadequate sex education: sexual and gender violence.
“WCC does not teach children about ‘sex’. WCC teaches children and youth about keeping safe,” says Prema. Their programmes, such as OK Tak OK, Respek and Cybersafety, teach children to recognise signs of danger, and how to respond or access help in the face of sexual abuse. “For older youths in secondary schools, the focus of the programmes include among other things, building self-esteem and having healthy, non-exploitative relationships,” Prema adds.
Toxic masculinity is the root of many sexual abuse cases, and it lies deeply entrenched in our society. WCC recognises this and they currently run a programme called Boyz Programme which facilitates young men in developing a healthy sense of masculinity. “The programme helps them look at and evaluate some behaviours or practices associated with masculinity, and the impact of such behaviours or practices on themselves and on others,” Prema explains.
CSE, however, comprises much more than just the prevention of sexual abuse and gender violence. “There is a variety of initiatives also being taken by others in the community,” says Prema.
Founded by Aishah in 2015, the Soroptimist Puberty Organising Toolkit (SPOT) prides itself in working towards being Malaysia’s number one CSE provider. To date they have conducted training sessions in 43 primary schools across six states, reaching a total of 5,140 girls. When asked why SPOT’s programmes cater exclusively to girls, Aishah explains that it is simply because females generally reach the age of puberty sooner than males.
SPOT’s curricula are modeled after the ITGSE 2018 and are developed upon five main pillars – relationship building, sexuality, health and well-being, sexual and reproductive health, and rights and staying safe. “Our lessons are also in line with the current school curriculum as our programmes aim to assist children, parents and schools to deliver quality CSE,” Aishah explains.
On the topic of sexuality, SPOT teaches girls about sex, safe sex, pregnancy, contraception and STIs while taking care to be socially and culturally sensitive and age-appropriate. “We also talk about sexual behaviours focusing on bodily integrity, responsibilities, boundaries, consent and their rights, and the laws around consent and sex,” says Aishah.
To encourage a culture of open discussion regarding sexuality, SPOT also provides a service known as SPOTLINE, where individuals can anonymously text their questions regarding sexual and reproductive health and rights. The questions will then be answered by a panel of experts and published on SPOT’s social media platforms for all to benefit from.
As Aishah plainly puts it, “Sex education is a human right.” CSE delivers more than just knowledge about sex. It empowers young people to realise their values, protect their dignity and make responsible choices.
“It’s a life-long conversation which starts with simple concepts and builds over time as the individual’s capacity to understand increases,” says Aishah. “Equipping young people with the knowledge, attitude and skills to excel at life is a solution that will benefit not just individuals and families, but the nation at large,” she adds.
At the end of the day, however much they try, organisations can only cover so much ground. The biggest and most salient contributors to the education of our children lie in the hands of our education ministry – and at home, with parents.
It is about time that we erase the stigma surrounding CSE. We need to start having unabashed, human conversations with our children about sexuality.
Rahula Loh is a psychology graduate from Upper Iowa University with a mild obsession with brains. She dreams to have one preserved in a jar on a shelf one day.