Saturday, February 15, 2014

Why can't we have proper sex education in schools?

What kind of sex are you teaching my kid?

Sex educator June Low goes to LPPKN to find out what Modul Cakna Diri (the manual that will be used in conducting the national sex education programme scheduled to be rolled out in September) is all about.
If you’re a sex educator like me, obviously you would have been thrilled to hear the news that sex education will be taught in national schools starting this September. Sorry, that’s SOME national schools. Specifically, 3 SELECTED schools from each state – one primary, one secondary and one special needs school – due to budgetary constraints, of course.
When I heard the news, I was mostly curious to know what exactly they were going to teach the kids. Weren’t you? For all you know, your kid’s school could be one of the “lucky” ones being selected, and if I were a parent, I’d wanna know what kind of sex stuff the government was teaching my kids.
According to the news report, Year 6 students would learn “basic information on puberty and their body parts under the Reproductive Health of Adolescents Module (RHAM)", and Form 3 students would be taught the Modul Cakna Diri which would “teach the 15-year-olds more comprehensive information about their rights and responsibilities, statutory rape, the effects of premarital sex and information on STDs”.
Before the news broke, I had already been exchanging emails with the LPPKN about any new sex ed initiatives they had planned. They confirmed that the new sex curriculum would be based on the Modul Cakna Diri developed by the LPPKN. I’d read the LPPKN sex ed manual 3 years ago and was curious to know if this was a new one, so I asked for a copy (after failing to locate one on their website). I didn’t get a response after that, so after over 2 weeks of waiting, I did what any Malaysian would do – I  went to the LPPKN building and read it there.
It turned out to be a disappointing experience. Modul Cakna Diri was the exact same thing I’d read 3 years ago, with a bit of a facelift (and by that I mean a new cover design, not content-wise.)
And if you think you’re just going to swan into LPPKN and get a copy of Modul Cakna Diri, you’re in for a disappointment too. No copies for you, and reading on the premises is under strict supervision only.
I’d even called beforehand to confirm there was a copy available for me to read, but when I got there, the lady at reception kept asking me who I was affiliated with, and why I wanted the information. I said it was for research, and she told me that if it was for research, I needed written permission from LPPKN to read the modules.
I said that was ridiculous, and that this sort of information should be readily available to members of the public. Also, I’d done the same thing 3 years ago. She was still a little reluctant, but after I  showed her my emails with some people at LPPKN, she finally gave in and allowed me to read the manual.
I italicise “allowed” because the manual wasn’t locked in a safe or anything. It was just on an open shelf in the middle of the room, along with other materials that anyone in the place could just pick up and read. So I really can’t understand the LPPKN’s reluctance in allowing people to read the manual.
Anyway, I’m going to save you the hassle and tell you what Modul Cakna Diri is all about.
It’s basically a sex education manual divided into 3 main chapters.
The first is called “Maklumat Kesihatan Reproduktif” (Reproductive Health Information) and covers values and responsibilities concerning sexuality, sexual responsibility, conduct leading to the risk of pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and STDs, rape, abortion and baby dumping, and finally a section called “Am I ready?”
The second chapter is called “Teknik Untuk Mengelak Hubungan Seks Sebelum Berkahwin” (Techniques to avoid pre-marital sex) and covers abstinence, avoiding high risk situations, mastering the art of delaying sex, mastering the art of refusing sex, and a section called “Integration of techniques mastered”.
The third chapter is interesting because it seems to transform what so far looks like a purely abstinence-centered approach to sex ed (for one thing, devoid of information on contraception) into something resembling comprehensive sex education.
Chapter 3 is called “Seks Selamat” (Safe Sex) and covers “Abstinen dan Perlindungan Diri” (abstinence and self-defence), “Kaedah Perlindungan Diri” (methods of self-defence), and “Kaedah Pencegahan Kehamilan Dan Penyakit Jangkitan Seksual” (contraception).
In describing chapter 3 to you, I have deliberately written out the titles of each section in the original Malay because the last section is called “Mengekalkan abstinen dan pencegahan” which, when taken in context of the previous section titles, should mean “maintaining abstinence and contraception”.
My brief perusal of this chapter (under pressure) found that it even covers methods of contraception that are effective (eg condoms, contraceptive pills etc), and those that are not (eg vaginal douching.)
Sounds awesome, right? While developed countries like America are still focusing on abstinence-based sex education despite scientific reports that spell out the ineffectiveness of these programmes; Malaysia, a country that is widely considered conservative, is teaching comprehensive sex education!
But wait a minute, if this module was developed more than 3 years ago and has been taught in schools from then till now, how come teenage pregnancies are still on the rise?? And if it isn’t working, why are they still using the same manual??
Ah, you see my friend, that’s because despite creating a manual that looks a bit like comprehensive sex education, they’ve only been teaching chapters 1 and 2 in schools!
At the Bahagian Reproduksi Manusia (“Human Reproduction Section” – how misleading albeit sexy) on the 11th floor, I found the lady I’d been emailing, and had a long conversation with her and her boss about Modul Cakna Diri.
According to them, Chapter 3 is only taught to “high risk groups” identified by NGOs and the like.
You may be wondering, who makes up the high risk groups? Well according to the LPPKN, these are teens who have already been pregnant or contracted STDs in the past, of course! Because they’re the ones who need it the most, so that they, uhh, don’t do it again! We can’t have our kids learning about sex and contraception and all that before they’re READY! Sex education isn’t about preventing pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases! It’s about preventing them from REOCCURRING!
Oh…. Wait a minute…. (Lets let that sink in a bit)… annnnnnd we’re back to the logical world where we’re supposed to be PREVENTING TEENAGE PREGNANCIES AND STDs.
And while we’re on the topic of “high risk groups”, it’s also been reported that the new sex ed programme to be introduced in December will see students being put into green, yellow, and red categories, indicating the level of “risk” they face.
LPPKN Human Reproductive Division’s Sexuality Unit director Dr Hamizah Mohd Hassan explains – “For example, students with partners are told that they are categorised in the ‘yellow level’ indicating they have to be careful as sex might occur next month, next week, or even tomorrow. The warning level would increase to ‘red’, indicating that sex might occur within hours, if the couple go out on a date in a secluded location, or are in a room together.”
I asked how LPPKN would go about identifying which students fell within each category and was informed that they would be selected by the school counsellors.
When I highlighted the futility and danger of segregating teens in this manner, I was informed that the kids would not be made aware of which label had been applied to them.
So at first I wondered if this meant that only students in the red category would be taught chapter 3, but based on a very recent news report it’s likely that chapter 3 won’t be be taught at all.
Dr Hamizah told the Malay Mail that  “A red warning... is when a couple finds themselves in a situation where they are alone and where things might get “out of hand”. In this situation the module teaches them techniques on how to "refrain from having sex to rejecting a sexual advance”.
This sounds to me like they’re stopping at Chapter 2, carrying on the way they have for the last few years (ie only teaching chapters 1 and 2 at schools). And if you recall, this hasn’t worked in preventing teen pregnancies. So my question is, why are they repeating a method that doesn’t work?
In the same news report, Dr Hamizah also said “The module is about preventing sex. We do talk about safe sex, but the demonstration of how to wear a condom for example is not allowed in schools.”
This statement seems to suggest they MIGHT teach chapter 3 (we don’t know for sure, and I implore the LPPKN to clarify), but they’re definitely NOT doing a condom demonstration. From my teaching experience, there is no point in doing a safe sex module without a condom demonstration. Teens leave the workshop having learnt what condoms do, but they have no idea/practical knowledge on how they’re supposed to use a one should the need arise.
I am often surprised by the number of teens outside KL who don’t even know what a condom looks like beyond the packaging it comes in. The people I spoke to at LPPKN told me, “Diorang dah tahu pasal seks dan kondom” (“the teens already know about condoms”). And this, sadly, is the prevailing attitude adopted by parents and teachers alike, ie: “I don’t need to talk about this awkward subject because I’ve probably already heard about it from friends.”
The fact is, degrees of knowledge vary. Some teens may know what a condom looks like, but not know what the sticky stuff is, or the purpose of lubrication. Some teens don’t know what’s inside the packaging. And yes, some teens don’t even know what a condom is. 
So if you do not show them the whole thing, explain to them why it’s designed like that, how it’s supposed to be used, etc, the whole exercise is pointless. And if the whole purpose of the exercise is to prevent teen pregnancies, this is definitely NOT the way to go.
I don’t want to belabour the point, but this is a truly ridiculous approach to sex education. Especially given that the method they’re proposing has already been tried, tested, and proven ineffective.
If teenagers being put in the red category are considered high risk because they are most definitely about to have sex “within hours, if the couple go out on a date in a secluded location, or are in a room together” – then can the same people identifying them as belonging to the red category say with absolute certainty that these teenagers will abstain after being taught to do so? And teens decide not to abstain, what are their options? Do they have any if they don’t actually know how to practice safe sex? Doesn’t that bring us back to square one where they risk getting pregnant or contracting an STD?
If we really want to protect our teens and reduce the number of teenage pregnancies, we need to do it properly. For starters, the LPPKN should make it easier for the public to get a copy of Modul Cakna Diri so that they can share their thoughts, give them feedback, and maybe improve on it before it is rolled out.
Am I being an idealist, or is that what people call “good governance”?
Comprehensive sex education is the only proven way to reduce teenage pregnancies and STDs. Through the development of Modul Cakna Diri (and by this I mean chapters 1, 2, and 3) it is clear that our government recognises this to some extent.
Good sex ed on virgin territory in Malaysia rests with most parents and teachers alike lacking sufficient information on the subject. When you add religious pressure and misconceptions about sex/sex education, I would say that the government’s inclusion of contraception into the national sex ed curriculum is to be commended.  However, if in practice, the chapter on safe sex exists just for show, for a limited audience; or worst of all, if it’s rolled out in a half-baked manner (meaning teens still don’t know how to use a condom/other forms of contraception should the need arise) then this entire endeavour is a waste of time. – February 15, 2014.June Low

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