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The Need for Sexuality Education in Bangladesh

The Need for Sexuality Education in Bangladesh

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Published by Ekram Kabir

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Published by: Ekram Kabir on Apr 27, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Ekram Kabir 
Switching through FM radio channels in the car the other day in Islamabad, looking for agood song, Masooda Bano - an analyst currently doing a PhD at Oxford - was amused bythe repeated and casual use of a term that is considered bold and crass even by westernstandards on a Pakistani radio channel. Listening to the host, probably in his earlytwenties, liberally using the expression "pre-marital sex" she wondered what he washoping to achieve by hosting a show on this topic, advising parents to be open about suchissues and drug addiction with their children. The few minutes she listened to him raisedmany questions and dilemmas around the tension between tradition and modernity thatconfront the society - a society in transition not only economically but also in terms of thevalue structures that bind it.There is an argument in favour of such openness, according to which in an age whenglobalisation of media is exposing us to all kind of values and behaviour, it’s perhapswiser to be open about such issues rather than sweeping them under the carpet. Accordingto this line of thinking, restrictions increase frustration and push people into using thewrong means to attain what they want, while openness enables people to make better-informed decisions and wiser choices. So, is it not a healthy sign that the younger generation are now openly talking about such issues? The answer is not as cut and dry asit would seem. Opening up social spaces is good, but not when it is done in blind pursuitof the west, without limits and with insensitivity to local needs. The young radio-showhost clearly did not realise the full significance of the words he was using. And his casualuse of these words indicated that he thinks this is common behaviour. Yet the term he wasusing is loaded not just because of its explicit sexual connotations but also because itrefers to a social structure where gender roles, families, and parent-child relations areentirely different. Not always in a positive way. In such societies, children out of wedlock are common, teenage pregnancies are a constant worry, divorces are a norm rather thanan exception, and children often grow up in families in which their parents have childrenfrom prior relations. Is this the model we want to follow? So why do we feel we need toaccept this behaviour at the societal level? The argument that it is better to talk aboutsuch issues instead of suppressing them as they do happen is supplemented by thereasoning that being informed about the negative consequences of such actions mightstop people from engaging in these activities. This argument is also advanced in case of  policies like introducing sex education in secondary schools, or where some NGOs inSouth Asian countries have undertaken sex education programmes within communitiesdue to availability of donor funding for such awareness work.Consider this that sex education is an integral part of secondary education in westernsocieties but western youngsters do not always act more prudently. In fact the opendiscussion brings a certain acceptance of this behaviour as being normal. Many South
Asians in favour of open discourse on such matters claim that promiscuous behaviour issecretly happening all around us. It is difficult to substantiate such claims. But, even thereit is important to remember the difference. Young college boys and girls in our society dodate, but their relations are often quite innocent. The radio show, the host of which probably had noble intentions, is significant only for its indication of the general conflictwe face in society today, with the opposing forces of tradition and modernity. The westfaced this conflict in the last century and made certain choices about gender roles, socialstructures, and family values. Societies like Bangladesh, Pakistan etc., have to make thesedecisions today. In some ways we face more severe challenges because globalisation hasmade the processes of transition more rapid and extreme. But we also have a bigadvantage: the experience of western countries to learn from.To take another example, no one can use religion or morality to argue for repression of women. But western feminism and changing gender roles, along with the liberation of women and their full time involvement in economic activity, has meant that in age-oldinstitutions and nurseries there is no one left at home to care for the elders or the youngones. Today the young woman of the west is revolting against the pressure for economicsuccess, and is asking to be allowed to spend more time with her children, something thecurrent socio-economic structure does not allow her to do. Therefore, we need to strike a balance between tradition and modernity, and take up the positive aspects of the west,discarding its negative influences. This is not easy and may even be impossible. But thefirst step is to realise that not everything western is positive. We can learn a lot from thewest, true. But there are many advantages in our own traditional values and structures. In pursuing one let us not entirely forget the merits of the other.For example, Lysley Tullin was 15 when she became pregnant. The only contraceptionshe and her boyfriend had used was wishful thinking: "I didn't think it would happen tome," she said. Tullin, who lives in Oldham in northern England, decided to keep the baby,now aged 4, although as a consequence her father has disowned her. Tullin is not alone.In the UK nearly 3 per cent of females aged 15 to 19 became mothers in 2002, many of them unintentionally. And unplanned pregnancies are not the only consequence of teenage sex - rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are also rocketing in Britishadolescents, both male and female. The numerous and complex societal trends behindthese statistics have been endlessly debated without any easy solutions emerging. Policymakers tend to focus on the direct approach, targeting young adolescents in theclassroom. In many western schools teenagers get sex education classes giving explicitinformation about sex and contraception. But recently there has been a resurgence of some old-fashioned advice: just say no. The so-called abstinence movement urges teensto take virginity pledges and cites condoms only to stress their failure rate. It is sweepingthe US, and is now being exported to countries such as the
UK and Australia
.Confusingly, both sides claim their strategy is the one that leads to fewest pregnanciesand STD cases. But a close look at the research evidence should give both sides pause for thought. It is a morally charged debate in which each camp holds entrenched views, andopinions seem to be based less on facts than on ideology. "It's a field fraught withsubjective views," says Douglas Kirby, a sex education researcher for the public-healthconsultancy ETR Associates in Scotts Valley, California. For most of history, pregnancyin adolescence has been regarded not as a problem but as something that is normal, so
long as it happens within marriage. Today some may still feel there is nothing unnaturalabout older adolescents in particular becoming parents. But in industrialised countrieswhere extended education and careers for women are becoming the norm, parenthood can be a distinct disadvantage. Teenage mums are more likely to drop out of education, to beunemployed and to have depression. Their children run a bigger risk of being neglectedor abused, growing up without a father, failing at school and abusing drugs.The
has by far the highest number of teenage pregnancies and births in the west; 4.3 per cent of females aged between 15 and 19 gave birth there in 2002. This is significantlyhigher than the rate in the UK (2.8 per cent), which itself has the highest rate in westernEurope. Another alarming statistic is the number of teenagers catching STDs. In the UK the incidences of chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhoea in under-20s have all more thandoubled since 1995. The biggest rise has been in chlamydia infections in females under 20; cases have more than tripled, up to 18,674 in 2003. Chlamydia often causes nosymptoms for many years but it can lead to infertility in women and painful inflammationof the testicles in men. No surprise, then, that teenage sex and pregnancy has become a political issue. The UK government has set a target to halve the country's teen pregnancyrate by 2010, and the US government has set similar goals. But achieving these targetswill not be easy. In an age when adolescence has never been so sexualised, in mostwestern countries people often begin to have sex in their mid to late teens; by the age of 17, between 50 and 60 per cent are no longer virgins.The sex education strategy gained further support in the early 1990s when policy makerslooked to the
. There, teenage birth rates have plummeted since the 1970sand are now among the lowest in Europe, with about 0.8 per cent of females aged between 15 and 19 giving birth in 2002. No one knows why for sure, as Dutch culturediffers from that of the UK and America in several ways. But it is generally attributed tofrank sex education in schools and open attitudes to sex. Dutch teenagers, says Roger Ingham, director of the Centre for Sexual Health Research at the University of Southampton,"have less casual sex and are older when they first have sex compared withthe UK".Abstinence-based education got US government backing in 1981, when Congress passeda law to fund sex education that promoted self-restraint. More money was allocatedthrough welfare laws passed in 1996, which provided $50 million a year. If contraceptionis mentioned at all, it is to highlight its failings - often using inaccurate or distorted data.A report for the US House of Representatives published last December [2004] found that11 out of the 13 federally funded abstinence programmes studied contained false or misleading information. Examples of inaccurate statements included: "Pregnancy occursone out of every seven times that couples use condoms," and: "Condoms fail to preventHIV 31 per cent of the time." They also use some questionable logic regarding thesuccess rate of abstinence.Studies have consistently found that youth lack basic knowledge about sexuality andcontraception. In a survey of nearly 3,000 youth in
, only one-third of those 15-to 19- years-old could correctly identify the fertile time in the menstrual cycle, and 80 per cent incorrectly thought that oral contraceptives could cause sterility. Those youth whohad participated in a family life education programme had more knowledge about

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