Participants at a #SayaSayangSaya town hall session in Kuala Terengganu in March. PIC BY ASLINA ABU BAKAR

“I DIDN’T know that you could get pregnant by having sex” . These were the words of Sara, a 15-year-old girl interviewed by popular actress Lisa Surihani for a video on sex predators. She found herself pregnant after having sex with a man she had met on WeChat.

It is for children like Sara that we are making the call for sexual and reproductive health education to be made mandatory in schools. Without such an education, children will get their information from other sources. Sadly, this includes strangers they meet online.

Internet-mediated rape, teenage pregnancies, baby dumping, early or forced marriage and higher risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections can be attributed to the absence of sex education in schools and the reluctance of many parents to discuss sex and sexuality with their teenage children.

On April 26, the Sexual Offences Against Children Bill passed into law. It is an important piece of legislation that sends a clear message: children in Malaysia need to be better protected against sexual violence.

However, this new law is just one part of the equation and will not suffice to keep children safe. Children and young people need to be empowered with the knowledge and skills to identify risks and protect themselves from unwelcome sexual advances or pregnancies.

Last December, the Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a General Comment on the implementation of the rights of the child during adolescence for such an education to be a mandatory part of the school curriculum. It detailed that the curriculum needs to be age-appropriate, comprehensive and inclusive. Its focus should be on sexual and reproductive health, not just sex, but the entire gamut of what constitutes a relationship.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) has been working with other organisations reaching out to children and adolescents across Malaysia in town-halls to talk about what remains a taboo topic in most homes. The #SayaSayangSaya initiative is based on the belief that any healthy relationship starts with loving and respecting oneself first.

At these town halls, we talk about respect, making sure children are not pressured into doing things they are not comfortable with. We talk about
safety, making sure children
are emotionally and physically safe in their relationships. We talk about acceptance, making sure our children do not compromise their beliefs to gain friendships. This education makes them resistant to social pressures inflicted by their peers or sexual predators they may encounter online.

When polled, more than 90 per cent of children attending these town hall sessions thought it important for sexual and reproductive education to be taught in their schools. We cannot afford to leave our children’s knowledge or reproductive health and sexuality up to chance.

So, the next time children hear the words “I’ll teach you about sex”, let’s be certain that it comes from a trusted and trained educator or their parents themselves.

Unicef, in partnership with DiGi, R.AGE and WOMEN: girls, is running a series of youth town-halls across the country known as #SayaSayangSaya to raise awareness among young people about healthy teen relationships, teen online dating and Internet-related sexual violence.

The campaign hopes to reach 600 young people and another 20,000 people via digital platforms. Supporting the youth town halls are the Federation of Reproductive Health Associations, Malaysia and the Sexual, Women and Child Investigation Department of the Royal Malaysian Police known also as D11. #SayaSayangSaya town halls have been conducted in Terengganu, Pahang, Sabah and Kelantan.

The next instalment will happen in Kuching, Sarawak.

The writer is the UNICEF Representative in Malaysia.

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