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A Group Of Under 18s Are Demanding To Make Sex Ed Compulsory In Public Schools In Malaysia

There is, in fact, a sex education programme being taught in Malaysian schools since 2011. However, the syllabus lacks clarity and is so vague that it simply fails to serve as a source of guidance for the students.

Cover image via Sadho/SAYS & Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

In Malaysia, where topics about sex continue to face conservative backlash, religious restrictions, and cultural taboos, a youth-led group is seeking to make sex education compulsory in government schools

Despite the misconception that sex education encourages sexual activity among young students, comprehensive sex education programs can not only help youngsters delay sexual initiation but also act as a preventive measure against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and unwanted pregnancies — a problem so severe that an estimated 18,000 underage girls get pregnant in Malaysia each year.

What's perhaps more worrying is that these numbers about teenage pregnancy "could be the tip of the iceberg as many cases are likely unreported," according to University of Malaya Specialist Centre (UMSC) obstetrician and gynaecologist Associate Professor Dr Aizura Syafinaz Ahmad Adlan.

Yet it is still not easy to talk about anything surrounding the sex topic in the country, the absence of which keeps young Malaysians in the dark about contraception, STDs, and more importantly consent.

And this is precisely what the Malaysia-based youth-led group, The Noeo Project (TNP), wants to focus on through their campaign that is currently in its initial stage and aims to highlight the "importance/value of consent in sex, the psychological and emotional aspects of sex along with the biological understanding of it, and to dismantle stigmas/myths/misconceptions regarding sex in sex education classes".

The same survey also found that one in five Malaysians believe mosquitoes can transmit sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Image via ResearchGate (Sadho/SAYS)

The Noeo Project, through its petition on Change.org, is demanding that the Ministry of Education (MOE) create an updated curriculum for all government schools to follow for their sex education classes

Alternately, MOE can also use the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) proposed sex education curriculum, according to the demand listed in the petition by TNP.

Among the topics, the curriculum by MOE should "clearly teach children what consent is and what it is not. It should also highlight the characteristics of consent", the youth-led group said, explaining that students should be taught that consent is "coherent, reversible/revocable, and should be given willingly".

Consent is "clearly something that needs to be addressed" in the curriculum, said TNP, adding that it should not just be limited to this but other aspects of comprehensive sex education.

"Sex education is (or should be) a holistic subject that includes teachings about the physiological, emotional, and physiological aspects of sex," TNP said in its petition that was launched over the week and has since garnered over 4,300 signatures at the time of writing this SAYS story. 

"It has been said that the current sex education curriculum is often 'vague' and is too technical for students to comprehend. The emotional and psychological aspects of sex are equally as important as the physical aspect, and so it should be given equal importance when teaching about it in the classroom."

Malaysia, in fact, does have a sex education programme called the Reproductive and Social Health Education (PEERS) that has been taught to Year One to Form Five students in primary schools since 2011

While there is no specific subject entitled 'sex education' in Malaysian schools, the Ministry of Education introduced some subjects related to sexuality and reproductive health such as Islamic Studies, Health and Physical Education, Moral Education, Science, and Biology for primary and secondary schools.

The PEERS syllabus teaches primary school students important information like 'good touch' and 'bad touch', helping them differentiate between them. Physical Education and Health textbooks for Form Five students, on the other hand, encourage them to abstain from sex altogether.

It also borders on the moral lesson stating that "pre-marital sex will sully the family's name".

Additionally, according to a 2011 study on sex education by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), which compared the PEERS syllabus with UNESCO's Comprehensive Sexuality Education Guidelines, "90% of the respondents agreed that sex education has not been taught in Malaysian schools".

According to the UKM study, the students explained that "the informal information given by most of the teachers were vague thus defeating the purpose of the students to learn on the issues".

The study found that while sex education was held in Malaysian schools, it was only on a minimal basis.

Image via UKM (Sadho/SAYS)

In fact, the teachers were so ashamed to explain the topic that they had to use other methods such as analogy and metaphors in educating the students in the classrooms, the students claimed.

"For example, the teachers only explained on the sexual intercourse and fertilisation aspect without making any relations with the value aspects. The religious teachers only touched on the Islamic perspectives, the boundaries between male and female, and the importance of husband and wife relationships," it said.

The study concluded that while around 85% of the respondents had received sex-related education, it lacked clarity and was so vague that it simply failed to serve as a source of guidance for the students.

Here, parents can play an important role in educating their children about sexual and reproductive health. However, most of them show inhibition about educating their children about such issues on the assumption that their children are unlikely to engage in sexual relations or are not mature enough.

One of the preferred sources of information about sexuality among young females are parents, particularly mothers. Unfortunately, parents are often not prepared to respond to this need satisfactorily.

Malaysian youths need and want to learn about sexual and reproductive health-related issues, according to a 2013 study funded by Universiti Teknologi MARA and the Ministry of Higher Education

In fact, the study predicted that changes made based on youth recommendations will enable the development of a better program incorporating a more holistic approach as there is a pressing need to advocate a comprehensive, culturally sensitive, abstinent-oriented sex education program.

So how does The Noeo Project plan to carry their campaign to make sex education compulsory forward beyond the signing stage?

Well, the group, that is run by 10 individuals who are all under the age of 18, told SAYS over email that they are taking steps to lobby various lawmakers in the current Perikatan Nasional (PN) administration.

"At this current stage, we have gotten the attention of Selangor state assemblywoman for Kampung Tunku Lim Yi Wei," TNP told me, adding that they are hopeful in approaching two other opposition politicians.

One of them is Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman, the former youth and sports minister, who recently announced his youth-based political party called Muda Malaysia (Young Malaysia) and the other is MP Fahmi Fadzil.

During his role as a young minister in the previous Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration, Syed Saddiq was instrumental in getting both the houses to pass the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2019, dubbed 'Undi 18', to lower the minimum voting age from 21 to 18 and enable automatic voter registration.

As topics about sexuality remain taboo in our society, TNP is aware that the journey to getting any actual attention from the government in order to make sex education compulsory is a time-taking process.

TNP told me that their next step will be to lobby the policymakers and representatives with a vision to have a holistic Child Sexual and Reproductive Health Education Bill tabled and passed in Parliament.

"This bill would mandate that all students across Malaysia receive a Ministry of Education endorsed comprehensive and non-partisan educational syllabus taught by trained teachers," TNP said.

For which, the group listed the following principles:

- The understanding of the paramount importance of consent and of mutual respect.
- The functional understanding of sex, with an equal emphasis on both the psychological and emotional aspects, as well as the biological understanding, of sex.
- The dismantling of social stigmas, myths, and misconceptions regarding sex.

In the meantime, TNP is trying to obtain formal endorsement and support from various civil society groups.

"We have reached out to groups such as UNAM Youth, the Women's Aid Organisation (WAO), and UNICEF, in the hopes that our voices as concerned and impassioned youth are heard," it added.

Meanwhile, in November 2019, it was announced that Year Six and Form Five students will learn about statutory rape, child grooming, and sexual harassment as part of their school syllabus starting 2021

According to New Straits Times, this will be taught from the perspective of law, adding that this was to enable students to learn about relevant legal issues on the subject, including sexual consent.

The syllabus was announced due to the increasing number of sexual crimes involving minors in the country.

The announcement, however, was made by then-deputy education minister Teo Nie Ching during the previous PH administration that collapsed some three months after in February this year. Since then, there has been no indication from her successors in the PN administration if the syllabus will commence.

The need for sex education in schools was highlighted last year when a girl didn't tell anyone about her grandfather raping her since she was in Primary Five as she didn't know if his actions were wrong:

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