Dim light at the end of sex education tunnel

By Sen    March 7, 2019 | 07:47 pm PT
Dim light at the end of sex education tunnel
There has been an improvement in sex education in Vietnam's schools in recent years. Photo by Shutterstock/Larisa Rudenko
The lack of sex education in conservative Vietnam, considered a reason for its high abortion rate, might finally be about to change.

"My son’s head teacher told me he chased after his teacher and asked to see his sperm after a sex education lesson," Thuy Nguyen of Hanoi, a mother of three, said, giggling.

Bin, her son, is in second grade and learned that sperms are only produced after puberty.

But his natural sense of curiosity led him to pursue his teacher and make the request. The teacher assured him he would understand when he grew up.

The Hanoi Education Technology Primary School, where he studies, is one of the few schools which does not shy away from teaching sex education.

"There are sex-ed lessons from 1st to 5th grades," Thuy said. 

"It’s not heavily technical, and the teachers design the lessons so that they are appropriate for elementary school students. My son is very interested and excited to learn."

There has been an improvement in sex education in Vietnam's schools in recent years. 

A head teacher at a public middle school in District 1, Saigon, told VnExpress International her school offers sex-ed lessons in a weekly life skill period.

"Our school has a counseling office for students on related issues. We often teach sex-ed in the school yard and halls for the whole school. Our students enjoy the lessons and want to know more."

Dr Vu Thu Huong, a lecturer and researcher at the Hanoi National University of Education, told VnExpress International that in recent years sex education has been incorporated in subjects like science and morality in elementary school and biology and civic education in middle and high schools.

The conservative mentality has loosened somewhat after a decade of campaigning against child sexual abuse caused by lack of education, research and speaking on various media platforms by Dr Huong and other academics.

Stressing the importance of sex education, Dr Huong said interest in the subject among Vietnamese students is evident even from a young age, and it is up to each educational environment to ensure the inquisitiveness is used for actual learning.

"Based on my experience, at eight or nine students begin to be curious about gender. Curiosity about sex tends to start at middle-school age.

"Therefore, sex education should be provided before their curiosity and urge kick in. This will prevent them from exposure to sexually explicit materials on the Internet and from malicious sources." 

Need to do more

Despite improvement, Vietnam needs to do more to improve sex education, especially in schools, experts said.

A reluctance to broach the topic has been a chronic problem both at school and home.

The school curriculum first adopted sex education in 1981, but initially there were only a few lessons in 10th grade, Dr Huong said.

Teachers usually skipped these lessons, and even if they did teach them, they did so only because it was compulsory and both were shy and students refused to engage, she said.

Viet Nguyen, 18, of Saigon said: "There was one time in 5th grade when teachers talked to us about sexual abuse of children, so we learned to protect ourselves. In middle school, there were two or three gender workshops where they taught us about types of genders and addressed questions related to gender if we had any."

During his final two years of high school, he recalled, there were only one or two sessions on topics like love, abortion and whether students had sex.

He said all the sex-ed sessions he had attended in public schools had been extra-curricular activities and not official lessons.

"Currently, Vietnam does not have any training module for teachers focusing on sex education," Tran Thi Phuong Nhung, a UNESCO Vietnam gender specialist.

Dr Huong concurs, saying the Ministry of Education and Training does not publish sex education books and there are only independent publications.

B.T.Tram, 17, a high school student in Saigon, said she and her peers are taught basic sex-ed but very generally.

"I used to have a wrong understanding of abortion."

The shyness and embarrassment is also a problem at home.

"When I was doing an informal survey of students in sixth grade, some told me their parents didn’t let them participate in extracurricular activities to learn sex-ed," UNESCO specialist Nhung told VnExpress International.

Parents’ hesitation to allow their children to learn the subject also explains partly schools’ reluctance to teach them.

Many people, including teachers, are of the opinion that if they let their children learn or know "too much" about sex and related issues, it will trigger their curiosity and prompt them to have premarital sex.

Nhung said: "At many sex-ed workshops run by teachers, experts and practitioners at middle and high schools in Vietnam, I notice their typical training tactic is to encourage students not to have sex and stigmatize pregnancies to scare them into not having sex. But that’s not really an effective way."

Educators’ perspectives vary, but if they are prejudiced it would most likely result in poor learning, she warned. She also said there was a gulf between training in small and big cities since the former have few experts in the field. 

Teaching abstinence does not necessarily work. It is reported that Vietnamese are having sex at increasingly younger ages, sometimes as young as 15. 

A 2017 UNFPA survey of people aged 15-24 in Vietnam found 83 percent knew about condoms and 63 percent understood their use but only 24 percent knew how to use them properly, local media reported. 

Vietnam ranks top in Asia and among the top five worldwide in the rate of abortion, according to official health reports.  Doctors said 40 percent of all pregnancies in the country end in abortion, and young people account for 20 percent of total abortions. 

Youth actions

While most schools in the country still shy away from teaching about sex, young professionals are taking matters in their own hands.

Vietnam Youth Action for Choice (VYAC) is one of many entities working to make comprehensive sex education a subject in the school syllabus.

VYAC was one of the youth groups that pushed the idea at a conference held last May by the Ministry of Home Affairs, the U.N. and the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union to collect young people's opinions in proposed amendments to the Youth Law.

VYAC’s three founders also advocate "the right to pursue a fulfilling, safe, and pleasurable sex life," something that is not taught in schools. 

This right is actually within the spectrum of sex education for children from 12 years and above, according to UNESCO’s "International technical guidance on sexuality education" published last year.

This was highlighted at a conference organized by the United Nations Population Fund in Hanoi last October and attended by representatives of the Ministry of Education and Training, academic book publishers and others.

 "Depending on the age group, we’d dissect the topic of female and male sexual pleasure differently. Most students don’t know about this right when we tell them, but they don’t shy away, follow the discussions, and agree it’s an important right," Mai Doan To Thuy, one of VYAC’s founders, told VnExpress International.

Not only is making sex-ed a main module in Vietnam UNESCO's goal, but it also supports training teachers in the subject.

"In 2019 the United Nations Population Fund and UNESCO plan to provide technical assistance for creating training modules for teachers so they can be trained in teaching sex education," Nhung added.

While knowledge about LGBTI people is still far from being incorporated in Vietnamese sex-ed lessons, some students at Fulbright University decided to be proactive. 

Freshman Nguyen Minh Ha, one of the founders of Full Pride and Alliance Club, has been organizing sexual orientation workshops at the university to promote affirmation of diverse sexual orientations and reduce gender-related discrimination.

"I think sexual orientation must be included in the sex education curriculum. It is an essential element in our life, especially for young people who are in the stage of finding out who they are," Ha said.

go to top