As of next school year, children attending Malaysia’s primary schools will learn about inappropriate touching, reproductive systems, sexually transmitted infections, and a host of other vital topics as part of the country’s new Social and Reproductive Health Education module. As an outspoken champion for comprehensive sexuality education, I was thoroughly excited by this news—until I saw the statement from Malaysia’s Deputy Education Minister, in which he said children would also be taught the “risks of pre-marital sex.” For me, that’s the apple that spoils the bunch. Teaching about risks and providing the tools to make good choices are an important part of comprehensive sexuality education. However, the implication that sex in the context of marriage is patently safe is misleading and puts lives at risk.
Just two weeks ago, Malaysian newspapers announced that HIV rates among women had risen dramatically in recent years, and that most new infections were among housewives. There’s a reason why wedding rings aren’t recommended by the World Health Organization as barriers to sexually transmitted infections—and to mislead young people into thinking married sex is somehow safer than unmarried sex is just irresponsible. Also, around the world, girls 14 and younger are routinely forced into early and forced marriages. At that age—married or not—girls’ bodies simply aren’t ready to give birth. Yet as child brides, millions are forced to have sex and become pregnant, suffering debilitating complications or death. I do think Malaysia’s Social and Reproductive Health Education plan is a step in the right direction, but I desperately hope it gets revised a bit before next year’s implementation. Otherwise, very good intentions could lead to more misinformation and the continued spread of HIV to women.
To read about IWHC partners who are giving young people thorough, accurate information about their sexual rights and health, check out our profiles on Aahung in Pakistan, The YP Foundation in India, and Girls’ Power Initiative in Nigeria.