Siti Aishah Hassan Hasri was 31 when she decided she had to talk to adolescents about puberty and sexual health.
When she was an undergraduate at Universiti Malaya, she volunteered to be an enumerator in a research project.
Her job required her to visit families living in People’s Housing Projects (PPR) in the Klang Valley to collect data on health, awareness on sexual health, HIV and AIDS.
“I realised then that there was a massive gap between the information girls have and the information they should have, which left many of them vulnerable to abuse, violence and exploitation,” she shares.
Siti Aishah then started her own research on educating girls on health, sexuality and well-being, which opened her eyes further about the glaring need for information on puberty-related issues and sexual health among children, particularly girls.
“I realised that most girls don’t have information about their bodies. I come from a family of six siblings and we talk about sexual health very openly but I realised it isn’t the same for many.
“There is also little focus on puberty health education for girls to help them understand the changes that their bodies are going through. Most sexual health education happens in secondary school and by then, they are already exposed to a lot of information and it is a little too late,” she says.
Siti Aishah felt that she needed to do something to address this gap.
She researched how comprehensive sexuality education was being taught around the world and decided to come up with a teaching module that was culturally sensitive and suitable for Malaysian children.
Her module addresses a range of topics including puberty, navigating relationships and even sex.
Siti Aishah then mustered up the courage to present her module to the education ministry and she obtained permission to test her module out on a group of 62 primary schoolgirls in SK Taman Permata, Kuala Lumpur, with the permission of the school’s headmaster.
“The headmaster was very happy to have me speak to the students. He felt they needed the education and information,” she says adding that the response from the pupils was also positive.
Wanting to approach more schools, Siti Aishah knew she couldn’t do it alone.
With her module in hand, she approached her friend, the late Sharon Saw from the Soroptimist International Club in Petaling Jaya for support. Before long, a collaboration was born.
That was two years ago.
Today, Spot (Soroptimist Puberty Organising Toolkit) community campaign has reached out to about 2,500 children in schools throughout the country with the endorsement of the education and health ministries.
Siti Aishah and her team of trainers (from the Soroptimist’s 14 clubs nationwide) go to schools and talk to children aged nine to 12 about puberty and related issues.
Says Soroptimist International’s Puan Sri Siew Yong Gnanalingam: “As a club we were quite excited about the project. We felt it was a good need to fill. I don’t know why schools are so shy about talking about this. Awareness is prevention.”
Kavidha Natarajan, who is tasked with expanding Spot’s reach to more schools, says that their programme is well received by schools and parents who find themselves ill-equipped to broach the subject with their children.
“Teachers and parents are happy to have us because they find it difficult to broach the topic of puberty and sexual education with their students and children.
“Also, schools don’t usually address sexual and reproductive health education until the children are 16 or 17.
“The thing is, children start having questions much earlier on. We need to have these conversations earlier, which is where Spot comes in. We created a safe space for girls to talk about puberty and the changes they and their friends are going through,” says Kavidha.
The spot module focuses on five areas: human development (reproduction health, puberty and hygiene), personal skills (communication, language, personal relationships), relationships (family, friends and strangers, dealing with romantic relationships, building communication and negotiation skills, boundaries, consent), sexual health (menstruation, STIs, contraception) as well as societal issues (gender roles, abstinence, peer pressure, future planning).
“We want to encourage girls to develop self-worth, self esteem and self-importance. If they have this, it reduces the chances of them being involved in unhealthy activities such as underage sex.
“We can’t stop them from having sex but we can deter them by telling them about the real risks and how it affects their health and their futures.
“Hopefully this will also reduce teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases among teens and reduce the number of sexual partners they have. These are all real issues but no one is talking about it,” says Siti Aishah.
Initially, the young girls would be awkward about talking openly about menstruation or sexual health-related topics. But they’d eventually warm up and by the end of the eight-hour programme (spread over a few sessions), they’d not only open up but are supportive of each other.
“For many children, we were the first adults who spoke to them about sexual health openly.
“They cringed when we said the word “sex” the first time. But after the first session, when they realised that it was a safe space, they opened up. Also, they realised that their friends were all going through the same thing,” says Kavidha.
Spot aims to reach 20,000 young girls by 2020. They also hope to expand the programme beyond schools – to conduct public workshops for as many girls as well as their parents – to get more conversations going on the subject of sexual health.
Organising public workshops will also help them fund their programmes and go to more schools.
“At the moment, we are relying on corporate sponsorships. We are trying to get corporations to adopt this as their corporate social responsibility programmes, to sponsor schools in the area.
“We need funding in order to train more trainers so we can reach out to more children. We also need to produce modules for the children,” says Siew Yong, urging parent-teacher associations to push for this in schools.
Find out more at sipj.org/spot and #nothingtohaid