We need to rethink sex education

opinion January 08, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

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Thailand has the second-highest teenage pregnancy rate in Asean; obsolete and hypocritical attitudes are to blame

The new year brought fresh bad news concerning the high number of Thai teenage mothers. With 54 pregnancies for every 100,000 girls under 18, Thailand’s ratio of young mothers is second only to Laos in Southeast Asia. Needless to say, the ratio exceeds World Health Organisation guidelines. Did we see it coming? Perhaps. Had we done our best to pre-empt the problem? No.
There is no lack of evidence to suggest teenage pregnancy is a serious issue for Thailand. The 2013 National Statistics Office was just the latest reminder. A 2006 study showed that 43 per cent of young mothers in emergency homes were aged between 14 and 20, with another 34.7 per cent under 14. In 2010 the Health Ministry revealed that an estimated 700 Thais between 15 and 19 were getting pregnant every day, and half of them sought abortions. Despite almost a decade of warnings, the problem seems to be getting worse.
Stories of teen mothers make headlines only occasionally but create “moral panic” every time. The scandalised public soon forgets, though. The discovery of some 2,000 foetuses at Pai Ngern Temple in 2010, for example, made national news that brought an outcry over unwanted pregnancy among teens. Had policymakers and authorities followed up, the situation could have been improved. 
The issue requires everyone’s attention because it affects not just young mothers and newborns but also society as a whole. To begin, we must stop living in denial. The issue should be discussed openly and thoroughly, not swept under a rug with the “taboos” of abortion and prostitution. 
We can learn from neighbours like Malaysia and Indonesia, whose readiness to admit a problem and take action has seen their teen pregnancy rates fall sharply. We must do the same.
Sex is still considered “dirty”, something that adults seldom discuss openly with each other, let alone with their kids. Alcohol and drugs are often blamed for causing unwanted pregnancies among teens, but more significant is that youngsters lack basic knowledge about sex. Authorities and the media rarely portray the issue in a positive light, preferring sensationalised and judgmental stories about, for example, teens planning to have sex on St Valentine’s Day.
Neither do schools provide much guidance. Thai sex education is either hypocritical or obsolete, left behind in an age when youngsters can see anything they want via the Internet. Guidance offered by campaigns such as Khoo Mue Wai Sai and Yued Ok Pok Tung (Proudly Carrying Condoms) were viewed by many adults as promoting sexual activity. 
The fact is that Thai teens have always been sexually active. Our choice is to teach them to take responsibility and protect themselves, or to keep sex a taboo topic and never talk about it. The answer is plain from the alarming statistics. 
It is time for our policymakers to rethink sex education. Teenagers deserve better guidance, and related agencies must summon the political will to provide it. Our obsolete and often hypocritical mindset, if anything, worsens the situation. No single sector of society is to blame. It is time we stopped pointing fingers and came up with a comprehensive action plan that tackles this scourge on society.