ST: Why neutral stance on homosexuals

Straits Times

25 April 2009

By Sandra Davie and Tan Dawn Wei

THE Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) sexuality education training manual suggests that homosexuality should be viewed in ‘neutral’ terms, rather than positive or negative.

It goes on to explain why: ‘Homosexuality is perfectly normal. Just like heterosexuality, it is simply the way you are. Homosexuals also form meaningful relationships, and face the same emotional issues that heterosexuals do.’

It was this statement that raised the ire of four new leaders of Aware – president Josie Lau, honorary treasurer Maureen Ong, honorary secretary Jenica Chua and committee member Lois Ng.

At their press conference on Thursday, Ms Ong, a mother of three, said it was the sexuality education programme that made her worry about what Aware was teaching children. ‘I’m concerned. I’m a parent. It’s shocking,’ she said.

It spurred her to join Aware, and be part of its takeover last month.

But former Aware president Constance Singam said yesterday that the programme was a comprehensive one, designed to provide teens with information in a non-judgmental way. ‘We do not teach kids to impart judgment, we just give them information,’ she said. ‘Their values come from their family, and their religion. Words like ‘homosexuality’, ‘sexy’ and ‘virginity’ are neutral words because Aware is non-judgmental’.

The sexual education programme started in 2007 and has reached about 12 secondary schools, run for small groups of students selected by their teachers to attend. To date 500 students, mostly girls, have attended the workshop, which comprises two three-hour sessions. It was only recently offered to boys.

The programme was developed over a year in consultation with parents, youth social workers, teachers, and academics from a range of institutions. Mrs Singam said it was put through a rigorous process of testing before being taken to schools.

It was run by volunteers who were selected after an interview. Before they could conduct the programme, they had a three-day training workshop including testing, two shadow-training sessions, and a number of assisted workshops.

Each three-hour workshop consists of games, role-play, discussions, and a presentation, covering topics such as sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, contraceptives, negotiation skills to resist peer pressure and building healthy relationships.

Mrs Singam also explained that Aware believed in a comprehensive sex education programme that did not teach only abstinence.

‘International reports, including the 2005 American Psychological Association report, have shown that only comprehensive sex education is effective in protecting adolescents from pregnancy and sexually transmitted illnesses,’ she said.

‘Just look at the statistics, the huge increase in pregnancies, abortions in Singapore is worrying. About 1,300 abortions were performed on women below the age of 20 in 2005 and also in 2006. From 283 cases of sexually transmitted infections in 2002, it hit 657 in the first nine months of 2007.’

She stressed the need for young people to have reliable information.

‘Kids sometimes get very misguided information from the Internet and their peers. We want to empower teens and young women with the right facts and the knowledge to make informed decisions, to understand the consequences of their decisions and to protect themselves.’

Aware trainers who conduct the workshop said they volunteered because they believed in what the organisation aimed to do through the programme.

One of them, Mrs Mathangi Kumar, who has two daughters, said the topic of homosexuality was only a ‘very small part’ of what the workshop covered.

She said that whenever the topic came up in her sessions, she focused on getting the youngsters to realise there is a diversity of views on such issues and to respect them even if they disagree with them.

Dr Carol Balhetchet, director of Youth Services in the Singapore Children’s Society, said teachers, counsellors and parents should not avoid the topic of homosexuality. ‘It’s the reality for teens these days,’ she said. ‘There are gays all around them. What do we do? Ignore it and not talk about it?

‘That’s dangerous – because then your child will learn about it from their friends and the Internet.’

She agreed that when broaching the topic, it is important to avoid making value judgments.

‘Just present them with the facts, what it is, what do the laws say about it, what different religions say about it, encourage them to talk about it to their parents and then let them make up their own mind based on their own value system.’

Two fathers whose daughters attended Aware’s sexuality education programme in school had differing views on the group’s approach. One said he was concerned when his daughter told him about the discussion on homosexuality.

‘They didn’t exactly say it was wrong, so I was worried that my daughter came away thinking that it was acceptable,’ he said. ‘Organisations that run sex education programmes must be careful about giving such messages to teens who are at an impressionable age.’

But the other father felt that the Aware trainer handled the topic well.

‘The trainer discussed how people view homosexuality differently, which led my daughter to quiz me on how exactly our religion views it,’ he said.

‘I thought it was a healthy approach to a very difficult topic. But the last thing I would want is for issues like this to be ignored.’

The Education Ministry said yesterday that in addition to its sexuality education programme, schools can collaborate with other agencies, including the Health Promotion Board, to run programmes.

In doing so, schools are left to ensure that programmes run by an external agency are secular and sensitive to the multi-religious makeup of our schools

‘MOE’s sexuality education programme aims to equip students with the knowledge and skills to make responsible values-based choices on matters involving sexuality,’ it said.

‘It is premised on the importance of the family and respect for the values and beliefs of the different ethnic and religious communities on sexuality issues.’

It said schools should inform parents beforehand and allow them to opt out if they do not want their children to attend the programme.

The two fathers interviewed said they were told beforehand of the Aware workshop.

SIDEBAR

Sexual education programme’s aims

What it is: Aware’s Comprehensive Sexual Education programme is aimed at helping young people develop a healthy and positive attitude towards sexuality and empowering them in their decision-making.

Who it is for: Girls aged 12 to 18 in schools and special homes. Aware recently developed a programme for boys as well. Workshops are limited to 25 participants. Parents can sign opt-out forms if they do not want their children to attend. The sessions are held after school hours.

How it is done: Two three-hour sessions are conducted by certified trainers. Topics covered include information on sexuality; sexually transmitted infections; HIV and contraceptives; how to resist peer pressure to engage in sex; clear communication skills; and evaluating one’s needs and wants. Games, role-play and discussions are employed to make the sessions more engaging.

What sex education is available in schools: The Education Ministry’s sex education programme aims to arm students with information and skills to make informed decisions.

It is premised on the importance of the family and respect for various ethnic and religious communities’ values, and that parents bear the main responsibility for their children’s sex education.

Sex education in schools is taught throughout curricular subjects like health education, science, civics and moral education. Schools are also encouraged to engage the services of other experts and agencies.

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