How times have changed. Today, teenagers learn about sex and sexuality mostly from friends, books, magazines, TV, movies, pop songs and the Internet.
As Malaysia races towards modernization, teenagers are becoming sexually active and are experiencing their first sexual intercourse as early as in their early 20s (Kamrani, Sharifah, Hamzah, & Ahmad, 2011).
However, despite developing industrially, the topic of “sex” still appears to be sensitive (Low, 2006).
As a result, adolescents today receive inadequate education and guidance on sexuality development and reproductive health (Lee, Chen & Lee, 2006).
It seems that the topic is often swept under the rug, and when discussed, it scarcely touches on pubertal changes.
As a psychologist, I believe that not meeting adolescent development needs may contribute to other psychosocial issues such as unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
Factors that lead to risky sexual and reproductive health behaviour among adolescents are the lack of sexual and reproductive health information and skills in negotiating sexual relationships, inaccessibility of youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services and peer pressure (Kaestle, Halpern, Miller, 2005).
It is estimated that there are 100,000 abortions performed yearly, and the numbers of illegitimate births highlighted by the National Registration Department have increased annually from nearly 39,000 in 2006 to about 53,000 in 2010 – an increase of 38% in only half a decade.
Between January and March 2014, a total of 1,048 teen pregnancies were reported (Malay Mail, February 13, 2014).
Thus, the provision of holistic sex education is more important than ever, as the young need to have a comprehensive understanding on matters pertaining to their own sexuality, an informed position on abstinence and safe sex, sexually transmitted diseases, and much more.
In a survey involving 520 secondary school girls carried out in 2011 to determine the source of information on sexual and reproductive health among Form Four secondary schools girls in the Klang Valley, the researchers concluded that despite 39.3% of students reported having an easy child-parent conversation with their mothers, only 6.3% reported disclosing sex-related matters with their mothers (Kamrani, Sharifah, Hamzah, & Ahmad, 2011).
Azman (2005) concluded that mothers were also the primary source of information about puberty and sexual topics among Malaysian secondary school students, and since not all parents are equally and adequately knowledgeable about sexuality or feel comfortable discussing it with their children (Sidawruang, Pfeil, Crozier, 2010), the need for information in schools may prove important.
Schools can provide consistent and medically accurate information that many students do not receive at home (Perrin & DeJoy, 2003).
In order to ensure that our youth are equipped with the information, personal insight and skills to protect their sexual and reproductive health, “it is imperative that schools, in cooperation with parents, the community, and healthcare professionals such as psychologists and counselors, play a major role in sexual health education and promotion (Maticka-Tyndale, Barrett & McKay, 2001).
Although adolescents often look to their families as one of several preferred sources of sexual health information (King et al, 1988; McKay & Holowaty, 1997), most young people agree that sexual health education should be a shared responsibility between parents and schools (Byers, Sears, Voyer, et al, 2003a; Byers, Sears, Voyer, et al, 2003b).
Also, the school environment could support and reflect the positive messages about sex and relationships that are offered in sex education lessons (Man, 2006).
Having said this, the golden question is, “Should sex education be taught in schools in Malaysia?”
Many parents may find it awkward to broach this subject due to cultural sensitivity, while some would be relieved to delegate the responsibility to schools, provided the subject is deeply scrutinized by mental health professionals, and it is carried out appropriately, preserving multicultural sensitivity and our Malaysian way of life.
Or perhaps the challenge may not be so much a parent’s reluctance, but a lack of know-how.
Questions like, “How do we get started in schools?” or “When do I begin in school?” may be on the mind of a parent, causing educators and school policy makers to procrastinate or simply avoid the issue altogether.
Since schools are the only formal educational institution to have meaningful contact with nearly every young person, they are in a strategic and nurturing position to provide our adolescents with the knowledge and skills they will need to make and act upon decisions that promote sexual health throughout their lives.
I strongly advocate that a well developed and implemented school-based sexual health education programme can effectively help youth reduce their risk of STI/HIV infection and unintended pregnancy.
In addition, it should be emphasised that an important goal of sexual health education is to provide insights into broader aspects of sexuality, including enhanced sexual health (e.g. maintenance of reproductive health, positive self-image) among our adolescents (Health Canada, 2003).
At the most basic level, in order for school-based sexual health education programmes to be effective, there must be sufficient classroom time devoted to sexual health-related instruction and teachers working with psychologists must be motivated to provide high quality sexual health education programmes (McKay, Fisher, & Maticka-Tyndale, & Barrett, 2001; Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, 2004).
In addition, it is clear from the research literature on sexual health promotion that effective programmes are based and structured upon theoretical models that enable educators to understand and influence sexual health behaviour (Health Canada, 2003; Kirby, 2001; McKay, 2000).
Schools, psychologists, educators and parents have to play an important role in teaching their teenagers about sexuality.
Currently, the sex education programme in Malaysia is still in its infancy, and more often than not, limited to studies on physiology and biology lessons on reproduction.
Ideally, the primary source of information should be communicated by parents. However, evidence-based research suggests a holistic approach as a more effective setting for such instruction within the schools, with parents playing a collaborative role in conveying the right information, moral values and wholesome attitude regarding sexuality.
Schools and parents have the tremendous, yet humbling responsibility to make sure that their children are properly instructed.
Ignorance is not a virtue. It is also not an excuse.
There are ample materials available in the market which educators and school psychologist can use as a guide to provide simple and feasible sexual health education programmes in Malaysia, tailor-made to Malaysian culture.
Vijandran Mariappan is a clinical psychologist. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.