Teaching abstinence is not enough

What is promoting zina?

“You should have sex before marriage! Nay, you MUST have sex before marriage! Let’s start a campaign asking everyone to have sex before they marry!”

What is NOT promoting zina?

“We cannot dictate people’s choices to have sex before/after marriage, but they should learn safe sex to avoid STDs, unwanted pregnancies, and coercion/manipulation.”

I’ve been getting responses to this on Twitter saying that teaching safe sex is basically teaching “safe zina”. The main problem here is that one group focuses on the word “zina”, while another is focused on the word “safe”.

I understand that religion plays a huge role in the lives of Muslims so naturally they think enforcing abstinence is the way to tackle these issues. Unfortunately, teaching/enforcing abstinence does not solve these problems. People will always find a way around it.

Like many have mentioned, you cannot dictate whether people will have pre-marital sex or not. They will do it if they want — even if secretly. On top of that, there are those who are manipulated and coerced into sexual relations. We cannot afford to leave these people out.

Having toured with UNICEF Malaysia before, the amount of sex-related issues (unwanted pregnancies, incest, sexual abuse etc.) within children is alarming and truly heartbreaking. I hate to admit that they’re more rampant in more conservative states, like Kelantan and Terengganu.

We also worked together with FHRAM and the D11 unit of PDRM. An unsurprising discovery is that sexual-related issues go beyond just “not teaching abstinence enough”. It encompasses many things; culture, technology, economic divides, awareness etc.

When we talked to FRHAM from these states, it was incest relationships between uncles/grandfathers/fathers with their kids/nieces/nephews/grandchildren as young as 6 years old which led to these kids “teaching” their friends.

Young kids were taught that “This isn’t your vagina, you won’t get pregnant/it’s not considered sex.” They were taught these by family members/friends who manipulated them.

That is why I wish people would stop seeing sex education as just “teaching safe zina”. There are actual people at risk here.

Dr Wan Azizah said she was shocked when she was shown a study by Protect and Save the Children, which found a high prevalence of sexual abuse cases amongst 20,000 children, and that offenders were often adults close to the children, including family members and religious teachers.

The study, which was classified under the Official Secrets Act by the previous Barisan Nasional government, was conducted more than 10 years ago.

Read: We have failed to protect children, says Wan Azizah

Everyone has a role to play when it comes to sex education. It is not just the job of teachers in school, but also peers and especially parents wherein their responsibility is mainly in the form of reinforcing social, moral, and religious ethics into the child.

Dangers of curiosity

Most opposition to sex education is on the assumption that knowledge is harmful; that if you enlighten kids concerning sex, they will go out and do it. However, all it takes is a simple Google search or observation of our surroundings to reveal that ignorance and unresolved curiosity — not knowledge — is harmful.

In September 2016, netizens went into a frenzy regarding a particular “condom” question in a PT3 examination paper. A lot of people were upset that the student’s answer was marked wrong, but there were also those who were enraged by the fact that whoever wrote the question paper had the audacity to ask about condoms.

PIBGN president Prof Madya Datuk Dr Mohamad Ali Hassan said that the question was unsuitable for 15-year-olds as it will encourage kids to go online and search for information on condoms.

As we are currently living in an age where technology is at its peak, people are online now more than ever. Due to its accessibility, children as young as eight years old can find themselves immersed in the digital world. Out of 16.8 million internet users in Malaysia, the youths make up 40% of these numbers.

While it is true that the internet is a haven of information, it is also filled with a lot of dangers and risks. We need to ensure that people get their information from reliable sources. It’s either we teach them, or they end up looking to strangers on the internet to help quench their curiosity.

Through the internet, young people are exposed to information, values, ideas, and opportunities, and if not managed well, their exploration, experimentation, and interest in the digital world can increase their online and offline vulnerability to harm.

This is the reason why sex education is extremely needed in our growing technological era ― to ensure that children and young people get their information from reliable sources.

Even if we take technology and internet out of the picture, we cannot disregard the urban poor/rural folks who do not have access to these facilities. Because of lack of information, these people are some of the most vulnerable to sex-related health and social issues.

What is sex education?

Sex education is not about giving youngsters permission to have sex, but it is about teaching them about the human body, about reproductive health, hazards of unsafe sex, and unwanted pregnancies. Not only that, but it also concentrates on the physical, mental, emotional, and social aspects of puberty, including relationships.

You can continue teaching abstinence in Pendidikan Islam. No one is saying that we should leave it out of the syllabus entirely.

The main reason teachers and parents care not to discuss sex education comprehensively is because of their cultural upbringing, not religion, because in Islam, “sex” is not a dirty word. In fact, it is an important aspect of our lives.

Unfortunately, I’m no teacher. I don’t have a module. But I can suggest we turn to other countries for an outline and refining it to fit our local context.

Teaching abstinence is not enough, and neither is reinforcing it. Seeing how hard parties are working to curb these issues, it means something is lacking in our ways.

We have to stop thinking that instilling religious fear into people will “protect” them from having sex. Nothing will stop people from having sex, not even the heavier punishments.

Our responsibility

Last year, thanks to R.AGE’s exposé Predator In My Phone, 115 MPs have pledged their support for a Child Sexual Crimes Bill, and it was tabled by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said in the Dewan Rakyat.

Source: Cabinet approves proposed Child Sexual Crime Bill 2017

However, enactment of laws does not mean that our responsibility ends here.

Our culture of beating around the bush when it comes to sex will birth, and has birthed, an army of adults who deem “sex” as a taboo subject, thus passing this on to their children, who in turn pass it on to theirs.

Even though there is still much to be discussed about how we are going to tackle sex education with a fresh perspective, I believe that a good first step is by getting rid of the stigma that surrounds the act of sex.

More stringent religious education and enacting more laws is not enough. We need to create a society that is aware of themselves and of others.

Additional reads:

[1] 697 baby dumping cases recorded from 2010 to 2016
[2] The Truth About Abstinence-Only Programs
[3] What Are the Goals of Sex Education For Youth?
[4] Sex Education And Islam: Is It Really Prohibited?
[5] The state of sex education in Muslim schools
[6] Why (Muslim) Sex Ed Can’t Wait Until Marriage

Shafiqah Othman Hamzah

Shafiqah is a Singapore-born Malaysian who is best known for her advocacy on social and human rights issues. She is notably known for her tweets and for being a columnist on Malay Mail.