REPRODUCTIVE health-related issues are clearly no longer taboo, as proven by students participating in the Saya Sayang Saya initiative.
The nationwide youth townhall series, which came to an end last week in Penang, featured interactive panel sessions that saw over 1,500 students actively discussing issues like domestic sexual violence, teen relationships, reproductive health and sexuality.
“I knew about sexual abuse, but not about rights and laws,” said Puteri Shuhadah, a 16-year-old student from Johor Baru. “After the townhall, I now know who to call if anything happened, and where to get counselling.
“My friends and I were happy to participate in the Q&A session because it felt like a safe space, and talking to people whom we didn’t know very well made it easier for us to ask questions.”
This initiative, the product of a collaboration between Unicef, Digi Telecommunications, WOMEN:girls and The Star’s R.AGE team, was a follow-up to R.AGE’s Predator in My Phone campaign against child sexual crimes.
Supported by the Federation of Reproductive Health Associations Malaysia (FRHAM) and the Royal Malaysian Police, the townhalls also called for discussions relating to healthy teen relationships, internet-related sexual violence, and reproductive health education in schools.
In its efforts to provide a safe space for these discussions, the townhall travelled to eight states in seven months, meeting with students and teachers alike.
Here are five facts we learnt along the way:
1. Sexual violence or harassment is more a norm than an exception among young people
To the students who attended the townhalls, online sexual violence and harassment are everyday hurdles to overcome. Many admitted to having received explicit content online from strangers and friends, but dismissed it as “normal”.
“I frequently receive obscene photos and videos through chat apps,” revealed a 17-year-old student in Terengganu. “I either block them or tell my parents, who will remind me to review my privacy settings and be careful when making new friends online.”
While the students might dismiss casual sexual harassment as a part of living in an Internet age, Unicef communication specialist Indra Kumari Nadchatram couldn’t agree less.
“A child should not feel that receiving explicit photos is a normal part of growing up,” she said. “It’s scary to realise [that they think it’s normal], because children should be able to enjoy their childhood without fear, and this includes their adolescent years.”
“We need to find avenues to equip children with skills, and to teach parents and teachers to navigate these conversations with children,” she suggested.
2. Young people are being pressured to sexual activity
“Due to the ever-present nature of the Internet, easy access to sexual content and open platforms to communicate with anyone and everyone mean risks are appearing from various fronts,” said Digi Sustainability programme manager Philip Ling.
“There is a huge amount of pressure, whether it be from a peer, a stranger online or even from people the youth trust, to engage in sexual activity.”
Polls conducted at the townhalls confirmed his statement: results showed that one in two students say teens are being pressured to engage in sexual activity.
Aggregated data collected from Johor, Kedah and Penang showed that 65% of the girls and 30% of the boys faced pressure to have sex, and the question and answer slots in Sabah, Terengganu and Pahang revealed that young people are being threatened into participating in sexual activity by friends and those close to them.
To Ling, these numbers prove this issue is growing and can no longer be ignored.
“The findings from these 316 schools nationwide were very similar, meaning that this is a risk found across the country. It can no longer be ignored, belittled or played down,” he said. “These aren’t statistics that will reduce, and neither are they a problem that will go away on their own, unless concrete actions are taken.”
3. Male survivors face more stigma
Not only do boys also face the threat of sexual abuse, male survivors tend to hide their abuse for fear of stigma.
“Why is it that some police officers do not believe the boy when he makes a report that he was sexually molested?” asked a participant in Terengganu. Another asked for a solution to the problem of adults forcing younger boys to participate in sexual acts.
The discussions touched upon sexuality and gender identities, as the panelists explained that sexual abuse is about power, not sexual orientation.
Stereotypes clearly hurt all genders, as polls conducted in Johor and Sarawak showed male students were more likely to keep an abuse private, despite experts’ advice to speak up in order to receive help.
“We need to be mindful of the impact of sexual violence on boys, and how they handle it. We must ask ourselves if we are doing enough to address issues around sexual violence faced by boys,” said Indra.
“They are not the same issues faced 10 years ago, nor can they be approached from a girl’s perspectives. Our solutions have to be gender neutral.”
4. Young people want comprehensive reproductive health education in schools
In light of the topics that cropped up in the townhalls, it’s unsurprising that young people see the need for a comprehensive reproductive health education.
“If sexual abuse and violence is happening to us, why don’t we have reproductive health education in schools?” was a question that cropped up in all the townhalls, alongside topics like teenage pregnancies.
While the current national curriculum includes reproductive health topics in subjects like science and physical health, FRHAM senior officer for programme service, Dr Rabiathul Badariah, suggested making it a subject on its own, complete with specially-trained teachers.
“Having a specialised subject allows the students an opportunity to learn and explore more,” she said. “It should be taught with the intention to increase knowledge about your own body, health and rights, not just to pass an exam.
She isn’t the first to feel this way. Stakeholders, including the organisers of Saya Sayang Saya, have long called for comprehensive age-appropriate material, including topics like gender issues and respect, to be taught in schools as early as possible.
Now, thanks to the townhalls, it may be a future possibility.
“We’re planning to work with the Education Ministry to conduct programmes in schools, using the data we collected in Saya Sayang Saya to show the areas that are lacking,” said Indra.
“But educating boys and girls need to start at home early on, as their attitude towards these issues stems from society and what they see at home. Each of us is responsible when talking about gender issues.”
5. Parents are the first source for help
Children should feel comfortable enough with their parents to tell them if anything is wrong.
Happily, a brief analysis of polls from Johor and Sarawak found that most children see their parents as the first source of help in incidences of sexual violence, such as grooming.
However, two states aren’t enough – parents nationwide should keep the lines of communication open with their children.
“It’s important to find a way to mainstream this (communication), and to find partners – whether government or religious bodies – to take this message and mobilise parents,” said Indra.
“If we start the foundation right with young people, they’ll grow to become parents who recognise the importance of talking to their children about these issues.”