Of the many developments in the war against child sexual crimes announced at the Hentikan!! seminar, perhaps the most significant one happened behind closed doors.
During an exclusive interview with R.AGE, Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim pledged to improve sex education for children.
“There’s a need to educate our children because they’re now able to get all their answers from the Internet,” said Rohani.
However, she admitted the ministry wouldn’t be able to call it “sex education”.
“We won’t name it sex education per se, as the name is taboo. The programmes are about knowing your body, and we also try to dissuade children from making the wrong decisions if there’s an accidental pregnancy,” said Rohani.
Deputy education minister Datuk P. Kamalanathan, who was also at the Hentikan!! seminar, agreed with the need for sex education, but cautioned that it would be a difficult process deciding the content and age-appropriateness of the syllabus.
While there is no specific subject for sex education at the moment, Moral Studies, Biology and Islamic Studies all touch on the matter, said Kamalanathan.
“We’re always open to suggestions, but every idea has to be carefully examined before being implemented. Each parent has their own definition of what’s acceptable for children, but the ministry is open to the possibility of expanding sex education into a subject,” he said.
But he was quick to add that “parents should be the first line of contact for children to discuss sex education”.
Second deputy education minister Datuk Chong Sin Woon echoed Kamalanathan, saying the ministry was open to ideas to improve the syllabus.
The current scientific approach to sex education may be a start, but it’s simply not enough, said Datin Wong Poai Hong, honorary president of the Association of Registered Childcare Providers Malaysia.
“We need to teach them about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and also gender roles. We once ran a corporate project, with teenagers living in a plantation aged 13-18, and discovered the girls felt obliged to have sex if a boy wanted it. We had to teach them to say no!” said Wong. The project was cancelled after four years when a new CEO who was less open to sex education took over.
Instilling fear and pushing an abstinence-focused curriculum isn’t helping either.
“The children will turn to the Internet instead. Learning should be interactive, so children will be comfortable enough to ask and tell you anything,” said Madeline Yong, founder of NGO Protect and Save the Children and one of the speakers at Hentikan!!.
“More importantly, the teachers need to be trained so they don’t let their own judgement affect their teaching.”
Datuk Prof Dr Noriah Mohd Ishak, director of the Permata Pintar Negara complex in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, added that school teachers also needed to undergo counselling training.
“They don’t know the symptoms of a victim, so they can’t detect if a child is showing signs of being sexually abused. Based on the feedback received during the PIBG, teachers and lecturers breakout session (at the seminar), it also seems parents don’t understand the sex education provided by the ministry,” said Prof Dr Noriah.
School counselor Khairul Irwan agreed, adding that improved sex education would prevent “experimentation” by students.
“Early exposure in the proper context is better for prevention. More importantly, with information, children have a choice and can make informed decisions,” he said.
The educators’ role
Clearly, teachers play a huge role in getting the message out to children, but without any training or guidelines, most are left to fend for themselves in the classroom.
“There isn’t any training for teachers regarding sex education. I graduated from teacher’s college in 1993, and until now, I haven’t seen a single training manual on teaching children about sexual health,” said Nancy, a secondary school teacher from the Klang Valley who spoke on condition of anonymity as she feared repercussions at work for speaking out about the issue.
Primary school teacher Jessica Yong agreed, adding that many teachers have taken it upon themselves to figure out ways to get the message across.
“We teachers discuss among ourselves how to deliver the material effectively since we’re essentially just given a textbook and told to teach it, on top of our main subject,” said Yong, 29.
“There’s barely any time for children to absorb the material that’s been mixed in with Moral Studies or Physical Education.
“They’re interested in learning, but by the time I’ve finished explaining what little there is, the class is over. It should be a separate subject!”
However, Nancy and Yong may be in the minority.
According to Loke Yim Pheng, former secretary general of the National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP), the Education Ministry ran a survey among teachers and found that the majority didn’t want to teach sex education.
“The problem is that some of them are very conservative, so it’s hard to shift their way of thinking,” said Loke.
The possibility of legal repercussions has also scared teachers off the idea of teaching sex education.
“Many teachers are worried they might teach the wrong thing or say the wrong word and be hauled off to court,” said Loke.
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Improving sex education
Social activist Rabiathul Badariah, who works closely with an NGO that deals with child sexual abuse, said it has been a long, uphill battle for sex education.
“For many years, NGOs and activists have been trying to advocate the implementation of age-appropriate sex education, but there’s been poor support and in some cases, outright rejection,” said Rabiathul.
“Rohani mentioned the government will be more aggressive in taking action against child sexual crimes, as well as addressing loopholes in the law. I feel it’s a great step but it’s not an easy one,” she said.
In the end, everyone needs to play a part in educating our children, and raising awareness is one solution, said Abby Latif, executive director for NGO WOMEN:girls.
“In order to protect and prevent, we need people to participate and make it their responsibility,” said Abby, who is part of the organising team for #SayaSayangSaya, a nationwide tour of public town hall events aimed at educating children how to avoid child sex abuse and where they can find support.
“It’s a platform for the whole community to come and ask questions of different experts, from the Federation of Reproductive Health Associations Malaysia, the Royal Malaysian Police, Unicef, Digi and R.AGE, and to realise it shouldn’t be taboo. It’s about constantly keeping the conversation going in a more informative way,” said Abby.
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