JAKARTA: The lack of comprehensive sex education can lead to serious social challenges, as Indonesia is finding out.
In Southeast Asia’s most populous country, up to 4.7 per cent of girls aged 15 to 19 and 17.4 per cent of women aged 15 and older have experienced sexual abuse, a 2017 report by the Knowledge in Childhood initiative shows.
According to a report published by Statistics Indonesia (BPS) and UNICEF in 2016, one in nine married women in Indonesia were married as children.
The Indonesian government has tried to arrest these trends through national programmes to tackle poverty, increase access to primary education and health services, law enforcement, and various efforts to enhance public awareness, including reproductive health education.
Notably, in September 2019, the Indonesian parliament revised its Marriage Act to increase the legal age a girl can marry from 16 previously to 19 – same as that for boys.
CONSERVATIVE SOCIAL NORMS HOLD INDONESIA BACK
Despite these efforts, social norms in the country, which has a large rural and conservative population, are still ruefully inadequate in addressing the prevalence of child marriage and sexual violence.
Toxic social norms have been widely acknowledged to be a leading cause behind the high numbers of child marriage, violence against children and unwanted pregnancy.
These have gone hand in hand with increasing religious piety and conservatism, as norms regulate the way young people understand sexuality.
Parents prefer to marry their daughters off before the legal age due to fears of daughters committing "zina", or adultery.
Conservative groups have also employed religious rituals as a means of preventing youth from engaging in pre-marital sexual activities.
For example, popular conservative groups Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran (Indonesia Without Dating), promotes early marriage in urging Indonesians to protect themselves from the sin of adultery.
The movement also often highlights the risks of dating, and has unsuccessfully tried to advocate the Indonesian Ulema Council to issue a legal pronouncement of dating as haram (forbidden in Islam).
There is also no minimum age for marriage if parents apply for the local religious court’s consent – a loophole which persists despite recent change to Indonesian laws.
NEED FOR COMPREHENSIVE EDUCATION
So what can be done to counter these social norms? Earlier this year, the National Population and Family Planning Agency (BKKBN) announced that they plan to include reproductive health education as part of core school curriculum.
It has done well so far to focus on factual modules on reproductive health, the risks of sexual behaviours and how these could lead to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), unwanted pregnancies, poverty and violence.
However, these programmes lack pertinent information that can help youths understand relationships and the complexities when it comes to abstinence, consent and decision-making about sexual health.
These are themes the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s Department of Reproductive Health and Research recommends, in their 2010 framework for action in developing sexual health programmes, to be included in any comprehensive sexual reproductive health education.
Instead, Indonesia has relied on deterring sexual activity by promoting a fear of STDs.
POOR PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING
There is an urgent need for comprehensive sexual health education in Indonesia.
Yes, I Do, an international study by five Dutch NGOs conducted in two regions in Indonesia in 2016 reported that pre-marital sex that resulted in teen pregnancy was influenced by limited access to sexual and reproductive health knowledge and services.
The study also affirmed that young women have a weaker bargaining position in relationships and that the majority of respondents agree marriage is a solution to unwanted pregnancy among youth, which are problematic findings.
Another study, by the WHO and John Hopkins University’s Global Early Adolescent Study, conducted from 2017 to 2018 among adolescents aged 10 to 14 in Indonesia, showed that students in this age bracket have a relatively low knowledge of sexual and reproductive health.
When asked to answer questions related to sexual and reproductive health, only 30 per cent of the respondents from the study could provide correct answers. Despite having limited knowledge of sexual and reproductive health, 50 per cent of youth in the study stated that they have been secretly dating.
The presented studies provide empirical evidence that toxic social norms in Indonesia can lead to higher risks for youths.
Given existing societal narratives that depict sexuality as taboo, sinful, and negatively affecting youth, it is no wonder adolescents shy away from asking important questions and have limited understanding of sexual and reproductive health.
Such narratives might be fuelling alarming actions from parents who struggle with their children’s own coming of age. From January to September 2019, a total of 63 teenagers applied for marriage dispensation to a religious court in the Slawi district in Tegal, Indonesia.
Some girls were already pregnant, but there were also cases where parents were worried their children would engage in non-marital sex and thus preferred for them to get married instead.
PRINCIPLES TO CONSIDER
We can no longer ignore the fact that conservative social norms hamper Indonesian youths from having a full understanding of sexuality and consent.
The government, educators and supporting organisations should develop strategies to instil a comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education syllabus and a system that provides requisite support for youths.
It is also worth for Indonesian authorities to bear in mind four key principles in developing national strategies.
First, acknowledge that sexuality is normal. That will enable programmes to be tailored according to a child’s developmental cycle without any fear-based messages. Parents, teachers, peers and the community should be involved in providing safe spaces to talk about sexuality.
Second, understand that youths have the right to exercise their sexuality and make their own decisions. But in order to exercise full responsibility over their sexuality, youths must be empowered with a comprehensive understanding of sex and sexuality.
This includes not just an understanding of attendant risks of being sexually active but also consent, how to make the right decisions, self-worth, body confidence, and what healthy relationships with the people around them entail.
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Third, let’s reframe our messages on sex. The evidence shows that sexuality is commonly seen as taboo to most Indonesians, but we also know that framing issues as reproductive health may lead us to leave out important issues of sexuality and consent, responsibility and respect.
Work done in this area by non-profit organisations such as Plan Indonesia, Rutgers, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the ARI (Independent Young People Alliance) are encouraging bright spots that provide youths with language to talk about sex.
Fourth, improve the accessibility of information and services for youths and their guardians. Information and services should be community-based, so that vulnerable groups of youths that include those who might not go to school have access to this support.
Access to information and services should be free, anonymous, non-judgemental, and accessible through various media that youths use. Parents and peers should also be equipped to provide guidance.
Using fear-based approaches to preach abstinence will not improve Indonesia’s poor sexual health public awareness.
Let’s empower Indonesian youths to take charge to become responsible and respectful adults who can make their own decisions instead.
Marsha Habib is Communication and Relations Manager at the Center on Child Protection and Wellbeing (PUSKAPA) at Universitas Indonesia. Ni Luh Putu Maitra Agastya is Senior Researcher at the same center.