In The News

Can Tragedy Trigger Sex Education Reform in Malaysia?

August 18, 2010

Last week, the Malaysian Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development reported three more incidents of “baby dumping” in a 24-hour period, bringing the total to 60 abandoned babies this year. Many of these children have been found in dumpsters and toilets.

In hopes of deterring such incidents, Malaysia’s Cabinet has recently requested that the police start classifying baby dumping investigations as attempted murder, or if found with intent, murder.

But critics say capital punishment is not the answer. Rather, says Women’s Aid Organisation President Ivy Josiah, sex education and better access to help for pregnant mothers is what’s needed.

On the prevention side, the Malaysian Government is considering introducing sex education into the core syllabus of Malaysian national schools. This announcement –which isn’t the first time they’ve considered this addition to the curriculum – from Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who is also education minister, acknowledges that the problems surrounding abandoned babies stem from a lack of reliable information on reproductive and sexual health among youth.

Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, says a lack of sex education in Malaysia has led to an increase in sexual assault cases, unwanted pregnancies, and abandoned babies. She says if the schools don’t teach it, kids turn to the Internet and other dubious sources. The two ministries have now set up a technical committee of experts to guide the process and decide whether to include sex education as an extra-curricular subject or incorporate it into the existing academic syllabus.

At present, sex education in Malaysia is taught in bits and pieces from primary to secondary school. In 2009, Shahrizat’s ministry introduced a pilot “sex education” co-curricular module titled “I’m in Control,” jointly developed by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and various NGOs, the module has been rolled out in five secondary schools in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Penang, Kelantan, and Pahang. The pilot has already demonstrated a significant increase in awareness as well as better knowledge and attitude among the participating students, according to Minister Shahrizat. It was hoped that this pilot program would lay the foundation for a wider scale program. The new initiative announced by the deputy prime minister last week is expected to provide more comprehensive coverage. Minister Shahrizat has stressed that the new module must include the basics of reproductive and sexual health so young people understand how their bodies work. Furthermore, youth should be aware of communicable diseases like HIV/AIDS and STDs. A key challenge, however, is lack of professional training among Malaysian teachers on the sex education curriculum and how to convey it effectively to their students.

This long-debated initiative to introduce sex education in Malaysia continues to face fierce resistance, mainly from conservative religious groups. Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, the spiritual leader of Malaysia’s main opposition party, PAS, has likened the teaching of sex education to “teaching thieves how to steal properly.” A long-standing opponent of the concept of sex education, his opinion continues to influence the Malay Muslim majority. Sensitive to their opposition, the deputy prime minster suggested that sex education be incorporated into the biology or science syllabus.

Regardless of differing opinions on the concept of sex education, the baby dumping tragedy has compelled the Malaysian Government to take a stand and consider a course of action. Hopefully they will do so before another baby is found in a dumpster or a teenage girl is sent to the gallows.

Anthea Mulakala is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Malaysia. She can be reached at amulakala@asiafound.org.

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