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Empowering Malaysians with Comprehensive Sex Education
In Malaysia, public school students currently receive limited sex education, but these proactive citizens have taken it into their own hands to equip students and the Malaysian public with knowledge about sexual health, contraception, positive body image, healthy relationships, and more.
In his fifth month of being a Teach for Malaysia fellow in a rural school in Sarawak, Victor Lam found his assistant classroom monitor missing. The young girl, who was bright and doing well in school, stopped coming to classes.
Lam later found out that the young girl had gotten pregnant.
“She didn’t even know she was pregnant,” says Lam, “until she started throwing up from the morning sickness, and she noticed a bump. She initially thought she was getting fatter.”
Victor Lam, formerly a Teach for Malaysia fellow.
“Once she got pregnant, she dropped out of school, she never finished SPM. Last I heard of her she got a divorce. The husband took the kid away, and she’s just been doing odd jobs,” explains Lam.
This incident isn’t far from the ordinary. An average of 18,000 teenage pregnancies are reported annually – this equals to 1,500 teenage girls getting pregnant each month, or 50 per day.
Without effective sex education, young Malaysians are not ready for or aware of the consequences of sexual activity. In 2012, the Global School-Based Student Health Survey revealed that 50.4 percent of Malaysian students admitted to have had sex for the first time before reaching the age of 14. Yet, according to a 2012 study by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), 85 percent of university age respondents reported that sex education held in schools was limited and unclear.
The state of sex education in Malaysia
Currently, Malaysian schools receive sex education in the form of the Reproductive and Social Health Education (PEERS) programme. PEERS was implemented in secondary schools in 1989 and extended to primary schools in 1994.
But PEERS does not provide comprehensive sex education. The content is incorporated into subjects such as Biology, Science, Moral Education, and Islamic Studies. According to the UKM study, it only covers a combination of two to three topics related to the physical development of children and adolescents, development of the reproductive and fertility system, and sex within the Islamic context.
“Sex education is not just necessarily focused on birth control and safe sex. It should deal with family values, psychosocial aspects, emotional issues, relationship issues, body image, positive self-esteem. These are the things we need to talk about,” says Professor Ismail Baba, executive committee member of the Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC).
The PEERS content also falls heavily upon school teachers to deliver. But without receiving training, teachers aren’t able to deliver the content effectively.
Unsatisfied with the narrow coverage of sexual education in public schools, some proactive individuals and groups have stepped in to fill the gap.
Realising that the current curriculum in schools does not meet his students’ needs, Lam initiated his own comprehensive sex education programme.
His initiative asks students to begin examining sexuality by looking at their own body image and feelings. The modules then progress to body parts, reproduction, consent, and finally, safe sex. Lam hopes to add a module about returning to school after getting pregnant.
“So this is what I mean about comprehensive,” says Lam. “It means you cover the whole, every aspect that’s related to sexual health education. You give them information for them to make informed decisions.”
Right now, the former Teach for Malaysia fellow is working with medical professionals to set up similar sex education programmes with some of the local hospitals and clinics in Selangor.
Originally trained as a lawyer, June Low began delivering comprehensive sex education to teenagers in 2010. Since then, her work has encompassed workshops, talks, short courses, and advocacy. Having a variety of evolving forms to deliver sex education is crucial to maintain accessibility and relevance to youth.
For example, when she saw the need for an alternative way to reach young people, she began her own sex education web series called Popek Popek in 2015. Low also has an art project in the works for the KL Biennale.
“If we’re static about our education, we won’t make progress. Sex education is not like math. It has to be a breathing, living subject. I try to think of new ideas, and new things, and new collaborations that can be found,” says Low.
Low is currently taking on a master’s degree to research the most effective methodology for people to deliver comprehensive sex education.
“There’s a lot more that needs to go on for nationwide sex education. They’re just saying we need to improve, we need to implement it, but no one is talking about the method. And that’s something that I would like to work on in my master’s research: how do we come up with a methodology that people can adopt to teach comprehensive sex education effectively? Specifically, lessons that are difficult, such as pleasure.”
Instead of being frustrated at the current national curriculum, Low believes this is an opportunity to create a new national sex education initiative.
“We need to look at it as an opportunity so that when we create something that’s going to be rolled out nationwide, we can at least create something that has addressed the mistakes other countries have made,” she says.
Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC)
Malaysian AIDS Council was established in 1992, and has been delivering sex education and sexual health awareness since its inception. With 48 partner organisations across the country, MAC runs educational programmes with schools, the general public, and certain target groups including men who have sex with men (MSM), transgender communities, and sex workers. Its sister organisation, Malaysian AIDS Foundation (MAF) was set up in 2003 to raise and administer funding.
To MAC’s Professor Ismail and MAF executive director Jasmin Jalil, sex education can save lives. Their commitment to educating the public stems from a personal drive.
“I trained as a social worker. It is my responsibility to share knowledge,” Ismail says. “I had very good friends when I first started who died of AIDS. So that’s why I committed myself to this kind of work.”
Professor Ismail Baba of MAC believes sex education can save lives.
Notably, 35 percent of reported HIV/AIDS infections in Malaysia are among young people between 13 to 29 years of age. “I think if we can tackle this problem, definitely we would save a lot of money in terms of the [spending on] unwanted pregnancies, and HIV/AIDS cases,” says Ismail.
Making a greater social change
For the past two years, MAC has been in discussion with government ministries to develop and implement a syllabus on HIV/AIDS for secondary school students by 2019.
“I think we still have a long way to go in trying to convince the general public when it comes to sex education,” says Ismail. “Sex education is quite taboo, especially to the rural areas.”
But there has been progress. Ismail recalls that 15 years ago, NGOs were not allowed to talk about condoms in schools. But with increasing awareness in the digital age, people are becoming more open.
He recalls holding a workshop with religious teachers in Sabah, not expecting to talk about condoms.
Malaysian AIDS Foundation executive director Jasmin Jalil joined the organisation eight years ago, when one of his best friends was diagnosed with HIV.
“Suddenly one ustazah said ‘hey, why can’t we talk about condoms?’ And at that time, I did not bring condoms along. But quickly I asked somebody to go buy condoms at 7-Eleven and we started to open them and talked about it. So that was a great kind of success story,” he says, laughing.
The biggest difficulty for sex education providers continues to be societal resistance around discussing sex, which is affirmed in the absence of comprehensive sex education from the national curriculum. Still, despite this challenge, these local educators are confident that their work will lead towards larger social change.
“I do expect to see resistance. But I am a firm believer that logic will prevail,” says Low. “And all we need to do is to persevere.”
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