Attitudes among teens are changing; more are contracting infections
By Amelia Tan
THE number of teenagers getting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV has risen in the past few years, the Education Ministry said yesterday.
Last year, 787 teens caught STIs, more than three times the 238 cases in 2002; for HIV, the figure rose from one in 2002 to nine in 2007.
These figures, the ministry said yesterday, are a key reason its sexuality education programme is necessary.
But the higher incidence of disease is not the only reason the programme is necessary, Education Minister Ng Eng Hen said at a press conference.
Attitudes towards sex are also changing: A 2006 survey of 4,000 students aged between 14 and 19 conducted by the Health Promotion Board and MOE showed that about 8 per cent were sexually active.
Though this is not as high as in other developed countries – in the United States, for example, the figure among youths aged 15-19 was 46 per cent in 2002 – there is a worrying trend: Less than a quarter of the sexually active youth in Singapore protected themselves against contracting STIs and unwanted pregnancies.
Children these days are also exposed to many sources of information, including on the Internet, and from interest groups with liberal values, Dr Ng said.
It is therefore important that schools provide objective and reliable information to them, he said.
Yesterday, the minister also revealed that the programme in schools has undergone some changes since it was introduced in 2000.
He said: ‘When we started, the key message was abstinence, reflecting the conservative social tone of our Asian society, where liberal values on sex are not espoused.
‘This is not a negative facet of our society. It is not prudish, regressive or naive.’
However, in response to the rising numbers of teens with STIs and HIV, as well as unwanted pregnancies, the ministry decided in 2007 that things ought to change.
Said Dr Ng: ‘It was clear that abstinence as the only focus was not an effective strategy in reducing the number of teenage pregnancies and STIs.
‘In 2007, messages were added – beyond knowing how to say no, students were also taught the repercussions of unwanted pregnancies and STIs and HIV and how to prevent them. This is now a key focus of sexuality education, and should continue to be moving forward.’
Whatever the changes, the minister said, the context of the schools sexuality programme remains: It has to pass on values compatible with those of mainstream society – encouraging heterosexual married couples to have healthy relationships and to build stable nuclear and extended family units.
He said: ‘MOE teaches the values which are held by the majority, whether they are religious or not. This is why we promote abstinence as still the best option for teens.’
After all, Dr Ng asked: ‘Which parent openly encourages his children to experiment sexually? Almost all parents hope for their children to find a heterosexual life partner, get married and have kids’.
He added: ‘This has been the natural cycle of life since civilisation began.
‘If their children turn out otherwise, some parents learn to accept it, and embrace and love their children for who they are, even if they are homosexual.
‘But schools are not the place to try to push for these outcomes, which are ahead of present societal norms.’
Dr Ng also said that sexuality education should not take only a moralistic approach. ‘If taught like a lecture, it will have little or no effect on school kids. We have to be practical, and these lessons must engage students’ interest and attention to reduce the incidence of STIs and teenage pregnancies.’
At the end of the day, however, the ministry recognises that parents are ultimately responsible for their children, and that some believe only abstinence should be taught.
These parents, said Dr Ng, may feel that teaching contraception might actually encourage teens to experiment. However, experts say this is not true, he said.
Nevertheless, he added: ‘Parents who feel uncomfortable with this approach can opt out of the schools’ programme.’