A prominent social activist has called for a more comprehensive approach to sex education amid statistics showing that tens of thousands of underage girls in the country are believed to get pregnant every year, leading to cases of abortion and baby dumping.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow, Marina Mahathir said sex education should go beyond the biological aspect of sexual reproduction with students exposed to other topics as well.
These include the emotional changes that adolescents experience, issues linked to gender identity and equality, and preventive sex education.
“Biology is only one part of sex education,” she said.
“Although it is important, we need to talk about what happens when people have sex, including babies and STDs and, of course, how to prevent those.”
“Biology is only one part of sex education.”
Recent research indicates that as many as 18,000 teenagers in Malaysia are believed to get pregnant each year.
Former women, family and community development minister Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail previously said that over 1,000 cases of baby dumping had been recorded from 2010 to May 2019.
But such numbers are not new.
Children’s rights advocate James Nayagam said the education department had planned to introduce preventive sex education, also known as community health education, some 25 years ago due to the rising number of social issues among youth even then.
The proposal had aimed to inform minors about the consequences of unprotected or unplanned sex, the use of contraceptives such as condoms and pills, and alternatives to abortion, among others.
However, the plan never materialised.
Nayagam said religious groups were unhappy about the proposal and had opposed it, saying it would encourage minors to have sex.
Even today, preventive sex education remains on the shelf because of such opposition, he said. In its place, campaigns are held to discourage youth from having sex.
Nayagam is not optimistic about the effectiveness of these initiatives.
“When you don’t have education but you want to have roadshows telling them ‘Don’t do this’ and ‘Don’t do that’, ‘Don’t have sex’ – come on, the more you say ‘don’t’, the more they will do it.”
For him, the preventive approach is crucial to any implementation of effective sex education.
Dealing with feelings
The emotions that young people have in their relationships and how to deal with them – another important aspect, according to Marina – are also absent from many approaches to sex education.
Marina, who has been championing sex education for 30 years now, said young people should be taught how to connect with members of the opposite sex and how to deal with emotions when they arise in relationships.
“Young people grapple with all sorts of feelings in their relationships, both joy and heartbreak, and they are not taught how to deal with them.
“Some believe it’s the end of the world when a person they love dumps them,” she said.
Issues such as peer pressure and the influence of the internet and media may also change teenagers’ understanding of sex, gender identity and equality, yet none of this is taught in school.
“Young people grapple with all sorts of feelings in their relationships, and they are not taught how to deal with them.”
Marina said peer pressure in particular often forces children to conform to the norms within a group in order to be accepted.
“Boys may feel pressured to have a sexual experience, even with a sex worker, in order to feel manly while girls may feel they have to conform to certain ‘feminine’ norms like dressing and behaving a certain way in order to attract boys.”
Likewise, she said, many young people copy the behaviour they see within their families or in the media regardless of the values involved.
Nayagam meanwhile voiced concern over situations in which young girls end up as victims.
“The age of girls going for abortions is getting lower and lower,” he said.
“I have come across girls who are 13 or 14 going for abortions three times a year.”
He urged parents to engage their children in conversation about sex to prevent them from picking things up from the wrong sources.
“I come from an older generation where we don’t talk about sex. But now, with my children I have to, there’s no choice.”