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MALAYSIA: Debate on Sex Education Rises with Teen Pregnancies

KUALA LUMPUR, Jul 21 2010 (IPS) - The prospect of motherhood filled 17-year-old Fatimah’s heart with dread.

This, the Muslim youngster told the magistrate she appeared before in March, is why she left her newborn baby to die in a garbage bag here in the Malaysian capital four months ago. “I feared punishment and condemnation from my family and teachers in college,” said Fatimah (not her real name).

The teenage mother was charged with abandoning her baby – a crime in this moderate Muslim-majority country, whose public has been increasingly worried by a spate of media reports police finding dead or alive newborn babies in trash bins and public places, including convenience stores.

“I had nowhere to go. I hid the pregnancy by wearing loose clothes,” Fatimah told the court when her case came up for trial in May. In the end, Fatimah, whose relationship with her boyfriend had ended, delivered a baby girl on the stairs of a shop, alone.

Under Section 317 of Malaysia’s Penal Code, the crime of intentionally abandoning a child below the age of 12 is punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment. But the magistrate took her youth and other mitigating factors into consideration and placed her on a good behaviour bond.

Based on police reports, over 100 babies were abandoned in 2006, many of them left by teenagers and young adults, students and desperate foreign migrant workers. This figure could have risen in subsequent years, since many such incidents go unreported, police say.

The phenomenon is tragic, activists say, noting that Malaysia has a First-World information infrastructure that could be readily harnessed to educate the youth on reproductive and sexual health, especially in secondary schools.

But religious opposition has stalled the integration of sex education in school curricula.

Echoing the views of the conservative sector, prominent cleric Nik Aziz Nik Mat said that sex education in schools would encourage teenage sexual promiscuity. “The best way to resolve this phenomenon is to instill greater Islamic values (in young people),” Nik Aziz was quoted as saying in May.

Even former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has said that sex education was unnecessary because students are already getting Islamic and moral education. “We keep hearing about newborn babies found in garbage cans, which is a sad matter,” Mahathir has said.

The government’s policy on sex education is far from clear. But amid a debate on unwanted teenage pregnancies, it has formed a committee to look into whether to teach sex education in classes. While some aspects of reproductive system are taught in science classes, there is little or nothing on sex, much less safer sex.

The government has also announced plans to set up an interactive portal in schools.

This is part of attempts to educate students about sexuality, abstaining from premarital sex, and the consequences of unsafe sex, said Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, the minister for Women, Family and Community Development.

“The portal will also equip them with necessary skills or tips on how to fend off sexual advances,” she told IPS. “The root of problem is that they (teenagers) do not know the risk involved. Most of the cases of abandoned babies are the result of unwanted pregnancies.”

But others point out that a judgemental approach that focuses on penalties, more than a frank, accurate and educational one, does not really reach young people effectively. Malaysian society is “more focused on condemning and punishing (sexual behaviour among youth) and not on understanding and helping,” lamented Ragunath Kesavan, president of the Malaysian Bar Council.

“It’s a severe form of incongruity that we must face up to and resolve – teach or to ignore (sex education),” he said, because ignorance is behind the number of unplanned pregnancies and abandoned babies.

As a result, young people are turning to their peers or the Internet for information about sexuality. But “such information is sketchy at best, probably romanticised and does not help young people make the right and safe decision,” lawmaker Chong Eng, who has frequently raised the issue in Parliament, told IPS.

“We cannot to ignore the challenges young people face. We have to teach, guide, and help them to make the right decisions,” he added.

A study by Fatimah Abdullah of the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia shows that young women in their 20s, not just teenagers, abandon their babies, a fact that reflects the severe lack of knowledge about sexuality even among young adults.

Most young mothers did not even know they were pregnant even after they stopped menstruating, she said. Her research also showed that some girls could not even distinguish between their urethral and vaginal openings.

The study, the only one available in the country so far, noted that there was no specific policy or programme in place to help teenagers deal with unwanted pregnancies.

Yet there are clearly implications for the future of girls and young women. “There is a lot of social stigma against unwed mothers that may lead young girls to unsafe abortions, to backdoor practices that can threaten their lives,” said a spokesman for United Nations Children’s Fund in Malaysia. “It can have a huge emotional and psychological impact on a girl who feels she has no other choice but to destroy her baby or give the baby up at birth.”

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