Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Teach about Sex? Attitudes Start to Shift - Slowly - in China

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Teach about Sex? Attitudes Start to Shift - Slowly - in China

Article excerpt

On a humid July morning in Beijing, a middle-aged Chinese woman stands center stage in front of an assembled crowd. Through her wire- rimmed glasses, she gazes down at her audience, then reaches for a condom, theatrically checking for holes or tears and noting the expiration date on the packet. She then slowly tears open the foil and demonstrates the condom's proper application, using a wooden prop. Li Yinhe, the woman in question, never thought she would see the day she'd be allowed to host a safe-sex education exhibition at a public institution in conservative China. A sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, Professor Li partnered with sex- education practitioners to organize the event at her workplace.

That it was permitted at all highlights a shift in "traditional" Chinese attitudes on sex and sexual health.

"The difficulty in pushing safe-sex education programs in schools exists because a lot of people still do not want children to know about sex too early. 'The later the better' - this is generally people's thinking." says Li.

At present, Chinese students are supposed to receive basic sex education, but the lack of qualified teachers and the awkwardness surrounding the lessons means that students' knowledge remains rudimentary at best. Li and her colleagues hope to introduce effective, mandatory sex education in schools across China. And international backers have been supportive of these goals - in 2010, for instance, the Ford Foundation granted $100,000 to Marie Stopes International China, an international nongovernmental organization working on sexual and reproductive health, to continue their work of peer-to-peer sex education. But progress remains slow. Indeed, Li's event was not popular, and it was ultimately closed to the public. Most of the chairs that filled the large hall were empty. About 50 people, mainly sex educators and some university students, occupied the seats.

Sex education is a taboo topic in China, but analysts say public health statistics suggest that events like Li's could help change that.

Of the 22.4 percent of unmarried youths in China who are sexually active, half have had unprotected sex, according to a 2010 study carried out by Peking University and the United Nations Population Fund. The same study reports that 20 percent of unmarried women who have sex get pregnant, and 91 percent of those women resort to abortion. Poor knowledge of contraceptives and sex education contribute to high rates of unwanted pregnancies. According to the State Family Planning Commission's Science and Technology Research Institute there are more than 13 million abortions a year in China. "Knowing where to buy contraception is one big challenge, and feeling empowered enough to do so is another," says Lily Liu Liqing of Marie Stopes China. …

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