There is no denying the curiosity young people have towards sex and sexuality. It is considered normal and a part of growing up. To be well informed and guided on matters regarding the physical and emotional aspects of growing into adulthood and starting relationships should also be considered as their human rights.

Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) does not focus solely on sex and sexuality but emphasises the importance of forming healthy relationships. Not only with others but with our own physical and emotional selves. UNESCO defines it as “an age-appropriate, culturally relevant approach to teaching about sexuality and relationships by providing scientifically accurate, realistic, non-judgmental information.”

With that said, there have been plenty of efforts to raise awareness on this issue in Malaysia. However, we do not see the same amount of efforts into providing CSE for Sarawakian youths. Although this is devastating, it is also crucial to realise that Sarawak has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country. With a more than 10% increase in cases recorded last year as said by SUPP Woman Central Chief, Kho Teck Wan.

We went from 48.5% unmarried teen pregnancy in 2015 to 63.3% in 2019. 

“Well, when I was young, I had pre-marital sex and my boyfriend at the time didn’t offer to use protection. I guess it was because we were both very young and didn’t know much about the consequences of unprotected sex. It was also my first time having sex and I was never introduced to birth control.”

Marissa and her husband, who are both 19- year-olds now, had to drop out of their secondary school in Kapit to provide for their baby son.

“I was 17 when I got pregnant and coming from an Iban family, abortion was never an option. As it could be seen as disgraceful to the elders which is why it was important for my boyfriend to take full responsibility. So we left school and got married,” she said while showing a picture of her family.

It is also important to note the need for CSE in combating not only teen pregnancy but also Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) in Sarawak. There was a total of 340 new HIV cases as of November last year as said by Dr Tonni Sia from Sarawak General Hospital (SGH).

Out of the figures, 93 per cent are men, with 98.3 per cent of them having acquired the virus through sexual activities – and 90 per cent through homosexual sex.

“I was 19 when I met this guy at a local bar in Kuching during a night out. Then, we had sex after. I was quite tipsy so I wasn’t sure if I did say yes to his invitation. I just went with it and we did it without protection.”

Sebastian, who is now 21 years old, was diagnosed with Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD) and an HIV-positive patient since last year.

“It started when I had rashes all over my body which I assumed they were just the normal heat rash. But they weren’t itchy. So, I went to the hospital with my dad then the doctor said they had to run blood tests. They suspected it to be STD. After that, I had positive STD and HIV,” he said while also sharing how he went through a depressive state due to the diagnosis.

When asked if CSE would have helped them become more well-informed about sex, both answered yes. 

Marissa mentioned how children as early as Form 1 (13 years old) should be introduced to CSE in their curriculum while Sebastian said Form 4 (16 years old) would be the appropriate age. 

Nevertheless, many others share the same stories as Marissa and Sebastian and most of them still undocumented. Especially the youths in Sarawak’s rural areas, where the generational culture of shyness is very much prominent. Topics such as sex and sexuality are considered as taboos and it is best to keep them private and personal.

“We come from a generation of shyness”

This leads to most families, especially the Dayaks, resorting to marriage for their daughters who got pregnant at an early age. They believe this as their “fate” and this belief will be passed on to their daughters as well. This ongoing have unprotected sex-get pregnant-marriage mindset needs to be addressed as our youths have the rights to be given other options. Ones that do not strip down their entire youth and future.

However, the difference between Sarawakians from the rural and city areas are merely knowing or not knowing the existence and importance of CSE. It is not enough to just know about the CSE, we need the government to implement this into the education curriculum. When there are multiple layers presented regarding an issue, the focus can easily be derailed away from the real issue. Most would raise the question:

So, who do we blame? The failure of Sarawakians to dismantle their “shyness” culture? The lack of attention given by the government? Or do we blame the younger generation for simply not knowing better?

Instead, the focus should always be on how could we, as both an individual and a society, help in raising awareness on this? It is time we educate ourselves on what CSE provides which includes the education about human rights, human sexuality, gender equality, puberty, relationships and sexual and reproductive health.

CSE is essential for young people to be able to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy, HIV and sexually transmitted infections, to promote values of tolerance, mutual respect and non-violence in relationships. Thus, it has demonstrated its impact in terms of improving knowledge and self-esteem, changing attitudes, gender and social norms, and building self-efficacy. Not to mention its positive impact on safer sexual behaviours while not hastening sexual activity. All of these are important to make sure our youths have a safe transition into adulthood.

Stop treating sex education as a taboo subject.

This mindset needs to be diminished as it withholds the chances of our youths to practice their rights for proper sex education. According to an article published on The Star, it is proven that CSE does not increase sexual activity, sexual risk-taking behaviour or STI/HIV infection rates, a concern many have raised.

There are also concerns in the lack of teachers who are fully equipped with the proper knowledge of CSE. This can be solved by implementing a computer-based CSE curriculum for students as introduced by Rutgers – a Dutch centre of expertise on sexual and reproductive health and rights.

We must realise that there are plenty of ways on how CSE can be taught here in Sarawak if only we could all work together alongside the youths to demand their rights. The first step is to recognise the problem then only will it be easier to provide the younger generation with the sex education they deserve. One that will prepare them for a safe, productive and fulfilling life. When delivered well, CSE responds to this demand, empowering our Sarawakian youths to make informed decisions about relationships and sexuality and navigate a world where gender-based violence, gender inequality, early and unintended pregnancies, HIV and other STIs still pose serious risks to their health and well-being.

Photo by mododeolhar from Pexels

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