Teaching girls to put on a condom - using cucumbers as substitutes - can be awkward at first. But as part of the plan, university students guide school children through the process. Teen love is hard, and teen sex, if it ever comes to that, is much harder.
When Mantana Tienchaitat was 15 and decided to start a relationship with a boy, she was bombarded with questions and protests not just from her parents, but also her teachers.
''They kept telling me I was not ready to have a boyfriend. I understood then that they were worried about me but does this make sense in reality?'' she said.
Now a 21-year-old senior at the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication, Thammasat University, Mantana looks back at her puppy love experiences and admits that in most cases when it comes to teen romance, adult approval does not matter. Teen years, she said, is a period of life when girls and boys tend to make decisions based on emotion rather than reason. And the only thing they need from adults is support and understanding.
Such a problem, added Mantana, is not just an issue of communication among family members but also a serious threat to the sex education approach in Thailand. To her, when it comes to sex education, one of the most important difficulties is the fact that the young do not dare express or share their doubts about sex and relationships for fear that they will be looked at by adults in a negative light.
Realising the importance of an appropriate approach to sex education, Mantana recently took part in ''Wairoon Mai Jued Chued Cheewit Tong Yued Yaw'' (For Teens' Colourful And Prolonged Life), a sex education workshop organised by Plan (Thailand) in collaboration with Thammasat University's Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communications.
Plan International's Thailand-based country director Maja Cubarrubia said that the workshop's objective is primarily to provide students with correct, comprehensive and practical information with regard to sex and relationship issues.
''The first thing we want to do is to make sure young people can make decisions based on right information,'' Cubarrubia remarked. ''When you are in love and are young, it's hard to decide just on the basis of emotions.
''And a lot of people know that teen pregnancy is a big issue in Thailand, which is mostly because young people simply do not have the information.
''We cannot stop them from having sex. But at least if they decide to have sex, it's based on some information so they know how to protect themselves either from unwanted pregnancy or getting infected with some disease.''
Mantana added: ''A number of adults might consider sex education as an activity that encourages kids to have sex.
''But it is not like that. Sex education gives children useful knowledge regarding sex and relationships so that they know, for example, how to turn down a guy's request for sex or to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy.''
The entire programme was created by a team of approximately 30 students from Thammasat University who were provided with content and technical support by staff from Plan (Thailand) so that they know what to talk about including condom use, pills, saying-no and negotiation techniques, as well as some significant relationship issues.
Held at Suankularbwittayalai Rangsit School, the activity focused on primary school students who are around 13 to 14 years old.
According to Assoc Prof Kalyakorn Worakullattanee, associate dean for academic affairs from Thammasat University's Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communications, the reason why the team from Thammasat University targeted students from that certain age group is because it is the age when children are exposed to a lot of things, including a plethora of information especially from the media and it is also the age when they start having relationships.
This programme equips them with the right information before they are too old to listen or before it is too late to protect themselves from unfortunate circumstances.
The entire programme comprised five different workshop sessions all designed and run by Thammasat University students. Through the fun yet educational activities such as games and role play, these five practice-based workshops taught different sex- and relationship-related lessons including pregnancy-related difficulties, how to properly put on condoms, how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, how to use contraceptives and how to say ''no'' if your boyfriend asks for sex and you are not ready for it.
And by having university students acting like ''teachers'' instead of the actual teachers, students have a better understanding about sex and relationship issues apparently because of the smaller age gap which results in more efficient communication.
''These Thammasat University students are around 21 to 22 years old and it has not been too long since their teens,'' explained Assoc Prof Kalyakorn.
''So they know the flaws of the sex education they experienced when they were in schools and know how teens feel about sex and relationships. At the same time they know how best to communicate with students and make them get the lessons in a practical and easy-to-understand approach.''
Jittreenuch Puangyod, a 14-year-old grade-8 student from Suankularbwittayalai Rangsit School, agreed with the idea of having university students teaching the young about sex and relationships. To her, sex-related lessons by university students are not just more enjoyable but also more effective than lessons taught by their school teachers.
''Many times when we are with teachers, we feel intimidated and dare not to ask questions,'' Jittreenuch said after she participated in a session teaching her to put on condoms. ''But activities like this make me feel more comfortable learning about sex.
''It is a wise and effective way to enable kids to have practical knowledge _ not just theories from textbooks _ and at the same time learn how to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy and infectious diseases. But I think when it comes to the issue of sex education, parents are still the best source of advice.
''Parents have lots of experiences and they are definitely concerned about their kids. So I think whenever we have problems about anything in life, the person we should turn to the most is parents.''
Cubarrubia also agreed that better communication among family members should be encouraged and promoted as one of the ways to prevent unwanted pregnancy and other sex-related threats among teens.
''From statistics, we know that there is a high rate of teen pregnancy. So if there are more discussions at home and if the children and parents are open to talk about this, there will possibly be less teen pregnancy. But again it's the whole issue of communication,'' said Maja, adding that a Memorandum of Understanding has been signed between Plan (Thailand) and Thammasat University, which allows them to work collaboratively and explore different things which will benefit Thai kids.
And because of the exposure to other cultures, there seems to be a much more accepted norm now for young people to have relationships and to have sex at an early age. And to go in line with such a norm, discussion among family members should start at an early age too.
''Children are not at home all the time and parents do not see them all the time either,'' commented Cubarrubia. ''So you do not really know what kids do after school or on weekends.
''So for me, it's better to give them the education so that they can prevent things from happening such as unprotected sex and pregnancy.''
''Thai government has become much more open [in terms of sex education]. Actually, right now Plan is working with some schools in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai regarding comprehensive sex education and the schools are very open to educate young people.
''So I can see more and more schools both in rural areas and cities to have more education. Our concern is hilltribe people or those who are not in schools. They are the ones we need to reach because they are the one to have relationships without any kind of information.''
And Mantana strongly believes that understanding and support is key to successful sex education among Thai teens these days.
''I do understand the idea of unacceptable sex out of wedlock, but I also do think that the world has changed tremendously,'' commented Mantana.
''So instead of telling kids not to have a relationship or not to have sex, why not teaching them how to do so in a safe way?
''These days, unprotected sex among teens is indeed an issue and should not be overlooked. So from my perspective, I think in order to solve this problem, it is better to understand and teach children the right thing than just blaming them.
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Students practise proper ways of putting on condoms by using cucumbers.
About the author
- Writer: Arusa Pisuthipan