There’s no question about it – the state of sexual health in Malta is deplorable. And while the health system’s resources are understandably geared towards grappling the virus, Health Minister Chris Fearne pledged that sexual health will get a well-needed update around March 2021.
Before a new sexual health strategy is presented by the Health Ministry, here’s a look at five of the best and creative sexual education programmes around the world.
Take note Malta.
1. The Netherlands
The Netherlands is internationally recognised for its stellar sex education programme, which starts as early as kindergarten.
But before you gasp, sexual intercourse isn’t explicitly mentioned until much later, because the Dutch understand that sex ed is not just about the birds and the bees.
Children, as early as four years old, are first taught about body awareness, self-image, learning how to express themselves and their boundaries.
It means that kindergarteners learn how to communicate when they don’t want to be touched, empowering them to speak up against abuse. The aim is that by 11, students are equipped to tackle discussions on reproduction, safe sex and sexual abuse.
The programme, called Spring Fever, involves age-appropriate lessons that prepare them for better sexual contacts, healthy relationships and sexual health in later life.
And it works. Teenagers in the Netherlands do not have sex at an earlier age than those in other European countries or the United States. When they do have sex, a study found that 7 out of 10 Dutch teens used a condom the first time, while the World Health Organisation shows that they’re the most likely to use birth control.
It’s no surprise that they’ve also got one of the lowest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe.
Nicaragua is rife with macho and sexist attitudes towards women. Sex education isn’t taught in most schools, there are high rates of violence against women, high pregnancy rates for women under 14 and abortion is illegal. Non-profits like the Samaritarian project, part of the global alliance MenEngage, have stepped up to empower girls, by focusing on boys.
Their “Champions of Change” programme educates teenage boys for 18 months to encourage respect towards girls, using workshops, role-play and discussions. Boys are taught about gender equality, toxic masculinity, sex and positive relationships and to respect LGBT people.
3. Vatican City
Vatican City. Yes.
In 2016, the Vatican published its own guidelines for sex education, and you’ll be surprised at how illuminating they are.
The six-part series called “The Meeting Point” is an informative pack for educators and youths. It talks about sexuality as “an integral part of the capacity for love inscribed by God in masculine and feminine humanity.”
“Sexuality involves the ability to express love: precisely that love in which the person becomes a gift and – through this gift – fulfils the very meaning of his or her being and existence,” it reads.
It doesn’t promote celibacy and doesn’t explicitly condemn the use of condoms, prostitution, adultery, masturbation or homosexuality.
Well, I can’t believe we should be looking to the Church for sex ed tips, but here we are.
The African state has seriously high rates of teen pregnancies – nearly one in every three 18-year-olds are pregnant. To compare, according to Malta’s Ministry of Health, there were 136 babies born to women between the age of 15 and 19 last year, and one under 15.
Abstinence is taught in schools in Nigeria, as in certain schools in Malta, but contraception, gender equality, consent and LGBT issues are not.
To fill the gaps, “MyQuestion” was set up. It’s an online programme and service that lets young people shoot questions about sex and receive accurate, non-judgmental anonymous advice, anywhere, anytime.
They can ask anything about contraception to menstruation to relationships. It’s extremely popular, with 12,000-15,0000 questions sent by text each month alone.
In Malta, pro-choice doctors and volunteers have set up a family planning hotline called FPAS to provide free and confidential advice about anything sexual health: from abortion, contraceptives and reproductive health care. Check it out here.
People tend to assume that people with disabilities and learning difficulties are asexual, so they are often left out for the conversation. People with disabilities are also more prone to sexual abuse, with around 90% of those with intellectual impairments reporting sexual abuse in their lifetime.
And while sexual education isn’t taught in many special needs schools globally, including Romania, local Romanian communities have teamed up with reproductive freedom group, the International Planned Parenthood Federation, to address this.
The “Keep Me Safe” programme empowers disabled people by teaching about consent, boundaries and sexuality using dolls, art and activities.
Carmen Surianu, director of the programme in Romania spoke about the programme to the Guardian: “We teach consent by forming a circle and inviting someone into the centre. We explain that this is your personal space and that people should ask your permission to come closer.”
Malta’s disabled people deserve to be included in the update on sexual education, to debunk the myth that their special needs mean they don’t have sexual needs like everyone else.
All in all, we must move beyond talking to young people about sex as a dangerous thing, but as a normal act of expression and empower them to make informed decisions.
The Ministry of Health is set to unveil a new strategy for sexual health in the spring.
The present decade-old strategy, published under the Nationalist Party, outlines bare-minimum requirements for what should be taught. It also calls for medically accurate information, but it’s still common for ineffectual videos and material to be shown in order to scaremonger kids from engaging in sex.
Other issues, like abrupt shortages to contraceptives and HIV medicine, staggering low rates of testing, rising STD rates, a lack of sexual health clinic in Gozo and a complete ban on abortion could also be addressed.
People in Malta deserve better, because sexual health is healthcare, and healthcare is a right.
Cover photo: The People Speak!
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