Lack of sex education taking its toll in Vietnam

By Luong Van Lam   October 23, 2019 | 05:16 pm PT
Vietnam's conservative attitude toward sex and reproductive health is responsible for thousands of teenage abortions every year.
Luong Van Lam

Luong Van Lam

"In the whole human relation there is no slavery or torture so horrible as coerced, unwilling motherhood," wrote women’s rights campaigner Marie Stopes in her 1918 book "Married Love." This remains very relevant in Vietnam even today.

I met Phuong, 21, a student, when I was doing interviews with unmarried women on birth control methods last year. The quiet, reserved young woman told me she and her boyfriend had been together for almost two years and that they had had sex "a couple of times."

"We mostly didn't plan any of those. Sometimes we used condoms, sometimes we didn't."

She said she hadn't thought she could get pregnant that easily since they "didn't have sex that regularly."

"If I don't know about something, I'd just Google it," she said when I asked her how she learned about birth control methods. Her parents never had "the talk" with her about safe sex and other related topics.

And like many other women I have interviewed, Phuong could not recall much about the reproductive health lessons she had learned in school.

Teachers simply pointed at pictures while students giggled with each other, joking about "the birds and the bees." Phuong didn't even know if what she learned on Google was accurate.

Around 6,000 teenagers officially have abortions in Vietnam every year. The word "official" is meant to point out there are so many more cases that go unreported and unacknowledged by authorities. The actual numbers could therefore be much, much higher.

You must have seen in the news about a schoolgirl throwing her newborn baby from a balcony, infants being abandoned in front of hospitals, pagodas and other public places, the huge number of fetuses discarded here and there, and the growing number of orphanages.

These are signs that show young people lack knowledge about birth control. I cannot speak for each and every mother out there who has abandoned her child, but there is one thing that I'm certain of: if they had actively prepared themselves with the necessary skills, knowledge and mentality before becoming a mother, so many precious little lives would not have been lost.

Phuong and many other girls her age never actively seek support or advice about birth control for fear of slut shaming. Having participated in numerous events on birth control in schools, factories and even malls, I know this fear first-hand.

Another barrier is that most young people do not pay much attention to this topic.

"I'm not married yet!" some protest.

"You look young, you must be unmarried. Why waste time on all this birth control stuff?" others say.

Many think only married couples need to know about birth control methods. But as a social worker, I know young people, especially young women, need to learn about them to take control of their relationships and of their lives, and to prevent the unfortunate event of an unwanted pregnancy.

In the Netherlands, one of the countries with the lowest rates of teenage pregnancy and abortion in the world, sex education is introduced as early as in kindergarten.

By age 11 most children could join conversations about reproductive health. Parents are open and receptive to conversing with their children about relationships and safe sex. When they finally reach puberty, an appointment with a family doctor is scheduled so that they are counseled about reproductive health.

Have you and your significant other ever talked with your children about sex or even about that passing, fluttering feeling they experience in their earliest years? Or did you ignore those feelings, condemn them and warn them to never talk about it again?

There are so many ways we parents could communicate with our children about this: through books, films, classes, or simple heart-to-heart conversations.

But the thing governments need to do right away is set up reproductive health clinics where young people will feel free to share their deepest inner thoughts, fears and concerns so that they can acquire all the information they need about birth control and the like.

*Luong Van Lam is a communications specialist. The opinions expressed are her own.

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