The difficult advancement of sex education in Vietnam

The reticence of communist authorities and the lack of trained teachers restrain the expansion of sex education in Vietnam, which experts believe is essential to prevent unwanted pregnancies and abuse.

At Truong To high school, just outside Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon), half a hundred 14-year-old girls discuss the risks of pregnancy for adolescents, compare the signs of puberty in boys and girls, and reflect loudly on which should be considered sexual abuse.

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“Once I was talking to someone on Facebook and a boy shared an intimate picture with me. He wanted me to send one of mine, so I stopped talking to him and used Facebook,” said one of the girls when he told how to stop the sexual abuse.

Minutes later, the teacher instructs self-defense techniques to repel attacks and escape from assault cases, and for half an hour everyone goes through couples, taking turns taking the roles of victim and offender.

Scenes such as these are exceptional in Vietnam, where sex education is not part of the compulsory curriculum and at best is integrated into new disciplines.

The session at this college is organized by the NGO Alliance Anti-Trafficking (AAT), a pioneer in sex education in Vietnam, which since its inception in 2008 (the first of its kind in the country) has contributed to the training of 60,000 teenagers and advocates mandatory before 2019.

“With the traditional system, they study the reproductive organs in biology classes and in civics they talk about love relationships and morality. They treat it as if it were in a history or math class and we want them to participate and share experiences”, said Ngan Ta, who is responsible for the project.

Ta explains that the program is progressing very slowly because of the lack of resources, the difficulty of training teachers and the reluctance of some authorities, fearing that children will have access to this knowledge too soon.

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“According to a Vietnamese proverb, there is no need to teach the deer the way to keep him from running. Deer represents innocence, and some government people believe that if children and adolescents had access to sex information, they will practice it very early “commented Ta.

Although this conservative mentality remains prevalent in some sectors of Vietnamese society, the AAT has found a positive response from parents, relieved that it could be debated in the college a matter they do not know how to approach at home.

The organization devotes many resources to the preparation of teachers to give these classes, with a close and open style very different from the usual methods in the Vietnamese system.

In class they talk about contraceptive methods, unwanted pregnancies and abortion, a problem that Vietnam has lived for years, with the highest rate in Asia (2.5 abortions on average per woman) and many cases among adolescents and young women: 8, 4% of women between the ages of 15 and 24 have experienced at least one abortion, according to official statistics.

Ta also stresses the importance of education to prevent sexual abuse, a problem that until recently was invisible and has been gaining a presence in society by several recent scandals.

According to the Vietnamese Ministry of Social Affairs, cases of sexual abuse of minors are increasing in Vietnam, with at least 1,200 a year.

Experts and some government voices call for early sex education to break the sex taboo and prevent children from being embarrassed if abused.

“We talk to teens about sexual abuse because it is the way to prevent them, they have to get used to talking about these things, we explain the limits because there is little information, the law in Vietnam is vague about it,” said Ta.

“Many women who end up being sexually exploited or sold as wives have been abused. Knowledge makes them less vulnerable,” he said.