Tuesday, February 10, 2015

In Thailand - Condoms, Valentine's and moral panic


Sex education for teenagers must be more than a seasonal effort

The seasonal campaign is up and running once again. As Valentine's Day approaches, the authorities have stepped up measures aimed at preventing unwanted pregnancies and the spread of HIV/Aids. The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration has announced it will distribute more than three million condoms on the day itself. But, despite high levels of concern over sexual behaviour among teens, action to tackle its consequences remains limited. In a nutshell, sex remains a taboo topic at most levels of Thai society.

The Public Healthy Ministry had proposed that condom vending machines be installed in all secondary schools and vocational colleges. Other authorities rejected the idea outright, wary that it would be perceived as encouragement to have sex. National Office of Basic Education Commission chief Kamol Rodklai said there was no need for such machines and there must be more appropriate measures. Youngsters, he said, "don't [think] that much about it [sex]".

The Obec chief's attitude sums up the problem in Thailand. As long as sex remains a taboo topic, adults will refuse to talk about it and youngsters will continue to have unprotected sex, not realising the possible consequences. Although sex education is included in school curricula, it is mostly taught as a health issue and youngsters get insufficient information about safeguards. These days they're exposed to more sexual imagery at an earlier age, but the guidance they're given has not grown in step.

Evidence of the consequences of this neglect is clear: While Thailand's birth rate is in decline, teen pregnancies have increased by 43 per cent over the past decade. A teenager gives birth every four minutes. According to the United Nations Population Fund, there were 2.4 million mothers aged 15-19 in Thailand in 2012. That alarming figure has helped spur the launch of several measures to tackle unwanted pregnancies, but these have been hampered by a lack of cooperation among the authorities. The difference in opinion between Obec and the Health Ministry over installing condom machines is just one example.

Making condoms more available is still perceived by many policymakers, educators and parents as an encouragement to sexual activity rather than as a safeguard against unwanted pregnancy or the transmission of disease. Over the years there has been no shortage of campaigns promoting the use of condoms, but most meet with widespread criticism and even organised protest.

Thailand's problem with unwanted teenage pregnancies is actually perennial, not seasonal. Authorities have recognised this and addressed the problem in the National Economic and Social Development Plan. The plan states that, for a sustainable solution, the cooperation of all parties involved must be sought. But the steady increase of teen mothers demonstrates that so far it isn't working.

Perhaps our biggest problem here is that we have lost our way. Speaking recently at a seminar on teenage pregnancy, an expert from the Path to Health Foundation proposed that we start by changing the perception in adults that sex has nothing to do with teenagers. We first must accept there is a problem. Then all parties should join hands to provide teens with the information and aid they need to negotiate this tricky period of their life safely. The Nation, Bangkok

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