ST: Sex education needed to counter worrying trends

22 May 2009
Straits Times

Sex education needed to counter worrying trends
Attitudes among teens are changing; more are contracting infections

By Amelia Tan

THE number of teenagers getting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV has risen in the past few years, the Education Ministry said yesterday.

Last year, 787 teens caught STIs, more than three times the 238 cases in 2002; for HIV, the figure rose from one in 2002 to nine in 2007.

These figures, the ministry said yesterday, are a key reason its sexuality education programme is necessary.

But the higher incidence of disease is not the only reason the programme is necessary, Education Minister Ng Eng Hen said at a press conference.

Attitudes towards sex are also changing: A 2006 survey of 4,000 students aged between 14 and 19 conducted by the Health Promotion Board and MOE showed that about 8 per cent were sexually active.

Though this is not as high as in other developed countries – in the United States, for example, the figure among youths aged 15-19 was 46 per cent in 2002 – there is a worrying trend: Less than a quarter of the sexually active youth in Singapore protected themselves against contracting STIs and unwanted pregnancies.

Children these days are also exposed to many sources of information, including on the Internet, and from interest groups with liberal values, Dr Ng said.

It is therefore important that schools provide objective and reliable information to them, he said.

Yesterday, the minister also revealed that the programme in schools has undergone some changes since it was introduced in 2000.

He said: ‘When we started, the key message was abstinence, reflecting the conservative social tone of our Asian society, where liberal values on sex are not espoused.

‘This is not a negative facet of our society. It is not prudish, regressive or naive.’

However, in response to the rising numbers of teens with STIs and HIV, as well as unwanted pregnancies, the ministry decided in 2007 that things ought to change.

Said Dr Ng: ‘It was clear that abstinence as the only focus was not an effective strategy in reducing the number of teenage pregnancies and STIs.

‘In 2007, messages were added – beyond knowing how to say no, students were also taught the repercussions of unwanted pregnancies and STIs and HIV and how to prevent them. This is now a key focus of sexuality education, and should continue to be moving forward.’

Whatever the changes, the minister said, the context of the schools sexuality programme remains: It has to pass on values compatible with those of mainstream society – encouraging heterosexual married couples to have healthy relationships and to build stable nuclear and extended family units.

He said: ‘MOE teaches the values which are held by the majority, whether they are religious or not. This is why we promote abstinence as still the best option for teens.’

After all, Dr Ng asked: ‘Which parent openly encourages his children to experiment sexually? Almost all parents hope for their children to find a heterosexual life partner, get married and have kids’.

He added: ‘This has been the natural cycle of life since civilisation began.

‘If their children turn out otherwise, some parents learn to accept it, and embrace and love their children for who they are, even if they are homosexual.

‘But schools are not the place to try to push for these outcomes, which are ahead of present societal norms.’

Dr Ng also said that sexuality education should not take only a moralistic approach. ‘If taught like a lecture, it will have little or no effect on school kids. We have to be practical, and these lessons must engage students’ interest and attention to reduce the incidence of STIs and teenage pregnancies.’

At the end of the day, however, the ministry recognises that parents are ultimately responsible for their children, and that some believe only abstinence should be taught.

These parents, said Dr Ng, may feel that teaching contraception might actually encourage teens to experiment. However, experts say this is not true, he said.

Nevertheless, he added: ‘Parents who feel uncomfortable with this approach can opt out of the schools’ programme.’

* * *

SIDEBAR

Education Ministry spells out approach to sex education

# Why is sexuality education necessary?

Sexuality education is an important programme in our schools. It aims to help our young understand the physiological, social and emotional changes they experience as they mature, develop healthy relationships with the opposite sex and to teach them how to make responsible choices.

There are a few related challenges that we aim to address through sexuality education. There is the problem of teenage pregnancies and the rising incidence of STIs (sexually transmitted infections)/HIV among youths, because some youths are sexually active but do not use contraception.

Our youths also have greater access to information. Our young have many sources of information online, from popular culture and friends.

They are exposed to the social norms of other interest groups, including those with liberal values. Hence, it is important for them to be able to receive objective and reliable information in schools.

# What are the messages taught in MOE’s sexuality education programme?

When sexuality education was started, the key message was abstinence, reflecting the conservative social tone of our Asian society where liberal values on sex are not espoused.

But it was clear that abstinence as the only focus was not an effective strategy in reducing the number of teenage pregnancies and STIs.

In 2007, messages were added – beyond knowing how to say no, students were also taught the repercussions of unwanted pregnancies and STIs/HIV and how to prevent them.

Content on sensitive topics related to pre-marital sex and homosexuality were made known openly and found to be generally acceptable. Even then, these sensitive topics were not and should not be the main focus of our sexuality education.

Homosexuality forms a small proportion of the entire package – less than 3 per cent. On homosexuality, children are taught what it is, and that homosexual acts are illegal.

Pre-marital sex is generally covered in secondary schools to teach the consequences of sexual activity and the key learning point is that it is not encouraged, as there are undesirable consequences.

MOE’s sexuality education programme respects the primary role of parents and needs to be taught in the context of values which our mainstream society believes in.

This means encouraging heterosexual married couples to have healthy relationships and to build stable nuclear and extended families. We do not condone promiscuity, sexual experimentation or promote homosexuality.

MOE teaches the values which are held by the majority, whether they are religious or not. This is why we still promote abstinence as the best option for teens.

# What is MOE doing to tighten processes in the engagement of external agencies?

MOE will continue to work with schools to train a core team of teachers to teach and deliver the sexuality education programme.

External agencies can complement the teachers and are useful resource partners, because many have useful areas of expertise which can help to achieve our goals more effectively.

Hence, schools should continue to be allowed to engage external personnel and agencies. However, unlike before, where schools were provided the autonomy to engage these providers, the vetting process will now be centralised at MOE.

The vetting process will be tightened to raise the level of accountability of providers.

More stringent checklists will apply. A committee, headed by Director/Education Programmes, will be formed to approve agencies/trainers on the panel. It will institute periodic audits on the fidelity of sexuality education programmes in schools as well as their compliance with guidelines on the engagement of external agencies.

# How can parents obtain more information on sexuality education?

The Growing Years series has been made available to the public. In addition, we will put more information on our overall sexuality education framework on the MOE website so that as far as possible, parents will know what is being taught in schools and can play their primary role in sexuality education.

Schools will also provide sufficient information to parents on their sexuality education programme.

Apart from providing an overview of their programme and topics covered at different age levels, schools should inform parents of any talks or workshops run by external providers and post such information on their websites.

Parents are allowed to opt their children out of the entire school programme or just for individual topics, talks or workshops.

# Will MOE continue to engage Aware as an external vendor?

All external agencies will be subject to the new vetting process, but beyond these procedural aspects is the more important issue of trust.

For the programmes to be delivered effectively, parents and MOE must be able to trust that external agencies teach according to the framework and values of MOE’s sexuality education.

External agencies must subscribe to these values if they choose to participate in sexuality education.

If they believe otherwise, or think that MOE’s approach on sexuality education is wrong, it is better not to participate in MOE’s programmes but instead make their views known to the Steering Committee, who as professionals will decide the merits of their arguments and if the programme needs updating.

This is a better and more transparent approach for external vendors to take.

External vendors must recognise that access to students in our schools is a qualified privilege based on trust.

This applies to teachers as well.

If parents are suspicious and distrustful of providers as having a negative influence on their children, then our programmes will be ineffective.

For these reasons stated, we will not be able to use Aware until they have gained the public’s trust for their sexuality programmes.

We must guard against schools and educational institutions becoming arenas for advocacy by either side for issues on religion, race, politics and sensitive areas like sexuality education.

If this happens, our students and educational system will end up the losers.

We welcome the participation of community groups, VWOs (voluntary welfare organisations), parents and other agencies to help MOE provide holistic education.

But just as teachers must not abuse their privileged access to advocate their own points of view, external partners who are allowed to speak in schools must respect this privilege as well.

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