Saturday 23 February 2019

The missing link in sex education

This article first appeared in the Sunday edition of Malta Today 

There are always a lot of suppositions when it comes to sex education in schools. You often read throwaway comments that it is “not taught” or not “taught well enough”. Faced by the very real concern of youngsters engaging in sexual activity at a younger and younger age, the perception out there is that adolescents are being left to fend for themselves, unarmed with important, crucial information and seemingly “ignorant” of their own reproductive systems.

The reality could not be further from the truth. I spoke to Ms Amanda Bezzina, the head of the PSD Association, Stephen Camilleri and Dunstan Hamilton, the education officers who actually wrote the booklets and guidelines on sexuality and relationship education to be used in schools, as well as to teachers in the field, and a clear picture has emerged. The education is there, the teachers are doing their job, but at some point, there is a missing link where either the information is not being absorbed, or more worryingly, where it is being casually dismissed by the students themselves.

As early as Year 3 there is the BABES programme organized by SEDQA, where children are given lessons on (among other things) the private body. Prior to these lessons an explanatory meeting is held with parents. The Office of Commissioner for Children has also published a book on types of touching and what is acceptable or not, which is distributed in schools.

In Year 4, after a meeting with parents and guardians, sex education starts being taught to children as part of the Personal Social Career Development curriculum. From this point up to Form 5, all topics regarding sexuality are covered in an age appropriate way. Students are encouraged to ask questions to ensure that no issue is left uncovered. Special workbooks have been created for older students, and some schools have invested in sexuality kits to be used in class.

Having looked through all the material which is used, I can say that there has been a concerted effort to cover the subject in a meaningful way, and teachers are given very good advice on how to handle such matters as confidentiality and how to set clear boundaries.

The education does not merely focus on the physical act however, or on the importance of contraception, pregnancy and STDs, but also covers feelings, relationship issues, mutual respect, as well as values. At Form 3 (13 years old), the students are taught on the ABC model (Abstinence, Faithfulness and Contraception).Obviously, teachers in the field told me, there are 13 year-olds who are experimenting sexually while others are still quite innocent, so discussion in the classroom needs to strike the right balance. For this reason, a question box can be used for students to ask questions anonymously. Sometimes as one teacher pointed out, they have to gauge what needs to be taught and when: “For example, this year with one particular class, I am feeling that I need to do more on contraception and STI’s even though they are not in this year’s syllabus (they did these topics in previous years). This is because some students told me themselves that they are being sexually active without using protection. Therefore, for me, this is a serious situation which has to be tackled immediately and cannot wait until sex ed topics come up in the syllabus later on in the year.“

What, then, is missing? Why is it that, despite having been educated about the subject, there is such low condom use, resulting in STDs and unplanned teenage pregnancies?

According to the educators I spoke to, there are a number of factors which come into play, the primary one being that sex education stops at Form 5, when students themselves feel that it really should continue throughout post-secondary and even tertiary education, ‘because life challenges do not stop at 16”.

Then there are a number of mitigating factors over which the educator has no control, which include:

1. lack of parental education from home
2. craving to be loved and to love (in case of teenage pregnancy)
3. missed lessons about STD’s
4. inappropriate friendships
5. the culture at home and within the community
6. they think that it will never happen to them
7. they think that withdrawal before ejaculation is a form of contraception (whereas facts show that it is not)
8. they may be too shy to buy contraception
9. they might believe that they would know if their sexual partner has an STI, because they would see something different (which is not the case)
10. sex takes place without being planned, so they won’t have a condom with them.
11. If the opportunity to have sex arises, they will take it without thinking of the consequences.
12. the cost of contraceptives
13. they think using contraption is not cool
14. being under the influence of alcohol
15. lack of familiarity with condoms and how to use them
16. lack of pleasure associated with condom use
17. indifferent attitude towards engaging in responsible sex
18. lack of reflection of consequences
19. some students tend to think STDs are not real and that teachers exaggerate matters

As one teacher elaborated: “Students have the mentality of YOLO and some do not fear any consequences. Peer pressure and the media do not help either. Nowadays there’s the notion of friends with benefits. And a ‘date’ is you go out with someone once, not with the intention of starting a relationship, but just once, for a fling. And during these dates, sexual activity takes place. So the intention is just to get some pleasure and nothing more.”

Interestingly, studies show that the percentage of teenage pregnancies seems to be going down. However, there is still a mentality among certain sectors of society where having a baby at a very young age is a deliberate choice. One teacher said, “Generally their family would be living on social benefits and they feel that it’s the best way to get some money. These girls are not interested in furthering their education and into having a fulfilling career. They look at the ’cute’ aspect of having babies without really grasping the reality of what it means to have a baby. Furthermore, when we discuss the responsibility of raising a child… they will tell you ‘well, there’s always my Mum, she can take care of him!’”

Having said this, the educators I spoke to still stressed that this is not the norm and the majority of girls want to pursue a career and have babies when they are older and in stable relationships.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the need for educators and parents to be on the same page. As explained by Ms Amanda Bezzina, “We need to have more of a link between the school, the home and the environment….In my experience the strongest barrier is the family and also the community. Sometimes, the values from this environment contradict those presented at school during the PSCD lessons. As a result, we need to work more with the parents and the community.”

Another teacher pointed out that. “support can be given to the parents so that the same home-school messages are given to the students. In addition, having school visits where the students can listen to real-life experience themselves and the use of drama can both be very useful.”

As with most issues, schools and educators can only do so much without the backing and co-operation of parents. This is probably the biggest challenge facing our society today, because no matter how much dedication and care teachers pour into their role, the most influential education ultimately starts at home.

I would like to thank the teachers who answered my questions, as well as Stephen Camilleri and Dunstan Hamilton (Education Officers PSCD) who wrote the guidelines and Amanda Bezzina (Head of PSD Association) for their full co-operation in compiling this article.

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