Years ago, during my undergraduate studies, I remembered a night when my dormitory’s Resident Staff (RS) dropped into one of our bi-weekly daun terup sessions. He had a serious expression on his face and asked us to keep an eye out for any of our female peers who seem like they might be in some form of physical or emotional distress. Just an hour ago, the campus guards found an aborted baby – bloody, lifeless, and stuffed into a toilet bowl in one of the campus bathrooms.

My RS left, and for the rest of the night, my level-mates and I were left in a somber mood. The playing cards were left untouched, and we turned our discussion to stories we’ve heard about similar cases across the years on the campus. During Induction Week in my first year, one of the facilitators told us a story of how they caught a couple having sex in a surau. This story was appended with the threat of expulsion and the fate of forced, unblessed marriage.

No doubt, this was to scare new students and inspire abstinence. We were hormonal young adults placed together in an isolated campus away in rural Malaysia. What did they realistically expect to happen? Especially for those who had lived all their lives prior in an environment where different sexes did not commonly interact or were told that such interactions were forbidden. It is an unsaid truth that university/college is a social petri dish waiting for such rules to be bent, broken, and experimented.

The many stories of abortion, khalwat, and sex scandals that occurred in just our campus alone beg the question of sex education—specifically, the lack of it among Malaysian youths growing up. We need not look any further than our education syllabus, where sex education is limited to a vague study of the human reproductive system. My class, the immature teenagers we were, snickered throughout the whole lesson with our teacher trying to keep a dry expression throughout. At the end of the day, there was no lasting impression. I cannot imagine how the same subject matter is approached in other schools outside the Klang Valley, if at all.Understandably, there is a pushback to discussing sex education openly. Critics use the argument where an open discussion will encourage the act itself. I’m not here to discuss the morality of sex, but I can undoubtedly say that avoidance of the subject will only lead to the existing “social ills” that are related to the lack of sex education. The Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development last year revealed that 64% of babies abandoned in the previous decade were found dead, left in public toilets and garbage bins.

Sounds familiar? I certainly heard this story when I was in university. Ten years onward and the image of an unborn child, bloody and stuck in a toilet, is something that doesn’t leave you easily.

Shame as social control, obstacle to sex education

Civil society has, for decades, encouraged the building of baby hatches throughout the country. But the “build it, and they will come” notion is a difficult one to adopt in this instance. We are a nation entrenched in Asian values; reputation and one’s good name is paramount. Out of fear of established cultural, religious, and social norms – we dispose our consequences in the most gruesome ways. This includes the stigmatization of family planning tools.

In convenience stores, contraceptives (typically condoms) are sold right at the counter, making it easier to perform a quick grab among other less conspicuous items. In pharmacies, it’s less easy as reproductive health items are placed deeper in the store. In both instances, the staff scanning the item usually doesn’t bat an eye; they likely don’t even care. This blasé treatment is important in making the purchase less awkward, although the buyer may still feel embarrassment.

In this respect, access to contraceptives is necessary. One can hope that its accessibility would at least nudge Malaysians towards using it – if not out of health and STD preventative reasons, at least out of the fear of accidental impregnation and the lifelong consequence that would follow the unfortunate family. In 2017, the National Registration stated that almost 5,000 newborns registered were out of wedlock, and to teen mothers. This statistic is closely related to lower-education levels. These are families who will face a lifelong shame in their communities, including the innocent child whose birth was no fault of their own.

So it is unfortunate that among certain quarters, accessibility to contraceptives is stigmatized – framed as encouragement of zina (adultery). The accompanying photo is evidence of such stigma.

Shame and lessons of abstinence are the current cultural approach we take. In more severe cases, sex education only happens after marriage – when parents of the said couple would engage in an awkward conversation, typically informed by experience. It is a conversation actively avoided for decades that suddenly appears once one enters the marriage club. Even this can sometimes be dangerous – as the discussion often focuses on intimacy and marital duties, as opposed to sexual health.

This is exemplified in the controversial Obedient Wives Club manual years ago when critics questioned the group’s philosophy of putting their husband’s needs above the wife’s own. The then-Barisan government consequently banned the group’s publication. This is also not to mention the lack of discussion surrounding issues of consent; a recent study found that 65% of Malaysian men do not understand what sexual consent means. While these are separate symptoms, the root of it lies in the lack of honest and straightforward sex education.

Rethinking our approach

Numerous studies have been done on the subject of sex education, its stigma, and how to approach it. One notable solution is for healthcare professionals to take charge of discussing sex education in school, as teachers or parents may not be able to navigate the subject with the level of honesty and sensitivity necessary. And contrary to public fears, studies also indicate that young adults who receive sex education are more likely to delay sexual activity, as opposed to being encouraged to engage in it.

I’ve always believed that we should do our best to help individuals make informed decisions. It is up to them whether they would want to follow it or not. In educating a young adult primed for sexual activity – there’s at least that chance that when the time comes, they would at least be aware that they have an option for safe sex. Stigmatising sex education and contraceptives only make it more difficult for them to make the right choice – because it shuts down the conversation. Teach, not shame, should be our approach to sex education if we hope to ever deal with this issue.