The present study examined the attitudes of Malaysian rural parents regarding sexual health education in elementary schools. Using a comprehensive list of sex education topics, parents were asked to examine which topics they believed should be taught at schools. In addition, the study also assessed the relationship between parents’ demographic characteristics such as age, gender, education, and occupation and their approval of sexual health education. The respondents of the study included parents (n=211) of children registered in four selected schools in Kedah, Malaysia. The majority of them (73%) supported the inclusion of various sexual health topics in school curriculum provided the contents were in line with religious teachings. The study has generated important empirical findings regarding local community’s response to school-based sexuality education. This information is needed in facilitating the development of sexual health policy at various institutional levels, and in the effective implementation of sexual health curriculum in Malaysian schools.
The applicability of sexuality education in elementary school is still a debatable issue in the perspective of societies where Muslims are the majority. Although the Qur’an has placed so much emphasis on acquiring knowledge, and in the days of Prophet Muhammad Muslim men and women were never too shy to ask him questions including those related to private affairs such as sexual life, for Muslim parents of today, sex is a taboo subject (Athar, 1996). Brought up in a cultural environment which regards children’s knowledge on sexuality as harmful, many Muslim parents today are in dilemma on whether or not sex education should be discussed at home and at school. However, in this era of sweeping social change, children do not need parents and school to educate them about sexuality. Every day they are bombarded with substantial information on sex by the mass media and peer group (Low, Ng, Fadzil, & Ang, 2007). This trend, however, is challenging because in most cases sex education promoted by these channels is devoid of morality in the sense that in many ways it contradicts the value system practiced in Muslim societies. Therefore, the issue of introducing sexuality education in the school curriculum needs to be assessed in the context of Muslim majority countries.
In the context of Muslim majority countries, sex education is a taboo subject to be taught at schools. A recent report by New Straits Times (a Malaysian daily newspaper) indicates that Malaysia is yet to consider introducing a comprehensive sexuality education at secondary and primary schools (Sipalan & Majawat, 2009). The same report asserts that current Malaysian Education director-general indicates that the government does not have plans to introduce sex education as a subject, since the present syllabus touches briefly on the topic in subjects such as biology, physical education, moral and Islamic studies. However, several local surveys indicate that students do not know how to protect themselves from sexual predators, reckless behavior and sexually transmitted diseases (STD), as they obtain inadequate information about sexuality in public schools, which generally only teach basic facts about reproduction in science courses.
Sex is often a sensitive topic in Malaysia (Wong, Chin, Low, & Jaafar, 2008), where unmarried individuals can get penalized for kissing and hugging in public. However, despite the prevalence of conservative, traditional and religious values in Malaysia, adolescents involve in romantic relationship outside marriage, and many engage in unsafe sexual intercourse (Lee, 1999). In addition, research has shown that the HIV infection rate and AIDS cases are increasing rapidly among young people in Malaysia (Wong et al. 2008). Up to June 2007, a total of 29,269 HIV infections and 2974 AIDS cases were reported in Malaysians below the age of 30 years (Malaysian AIDS Council Resource Center, 2006).
In Malaysia, the Cabinet had approved the introduction of “reproductive and social health education” into the school syllabus after years of deliberation (Abas, 2006). Although the details of how the course will be implemented and when it will make its debut have not yet been announced, it is reported that 160 pages of guidelines have already been produced by the Ministries of Education and Women, Family and Community Development (Abas, 2006). These guidelines cover diverse topics on sexuality which include among other things the type of touching that is allowed, contraception, teenage crushes, the dangers of online predators, HIV/AIDS, and sexual orientation. In view of the alarming number of rape, sexual abuse of children and incest cases reported in the papers, parents have been urged to be open-minded about sex education and welcome the Ministry of Education’s effort to incorporate the national guidelines on sex education into the school curriculum as a way to prevent such incidents (The Star, 2005).
However, what clearly matters in this issue is the lack of research on the applicability of sexuality education in elementary schools based on parents’ perspectives. Previous research conducted on sexuality education in other countries lack the religious, moral, geographical and cultural values considered important in Malaysian Muslim majority situation. Research on this issue illustrates three different approaches based on the nature of program. These are: a) solely sex education, b) abstinence-based sex education, and c) opposing sex education. In addition, there is another approach which combines both “sex education” and “abstinencebased sex education”.
Regarding issue of the parental involvement in deciding what courses should their children be taught and at what level, Adler (1993) affirms that parents have the legitimacy of choosing what subjects to be included in the school curriculum. Spodek, Saracho, & Davis (1991) correctly affirm that “whether or not sex education is included as part of the curriculum may depend on the value orientation of the parents” (p.68). In their study of parents’ attitudes towards sex education in school, McKay, Pietrusiak, & Holowaty (1998) found that “strong majority” of Canadian parents (95%) approved that sexuality education should be provided in school; while the majority of them (82%) are in favor of school-based sexual health education that begins in the elementary level. Ballantine (1997) asserts that the transmission of specific content such as sex education has been the subject of controversy in many communities because questions of responsibility and control of knowledge by family or education systems enter in.
Price, Dake, Kirchofer, & Telljohann (2003) present 1991 Gallup poll data showing that 87% parents of America approved school based sexuality education. A 1994 survey of rural parents in one of the states of America shows that 63% approved sexuality education for their children (Welshimer & Harris, 1994). McKay et al. (1998: 140) emphasized the importance of doing surveys on parents of children attending local schools as a productive and cost-effective way of measuring parents’ support for sexual health education at the community level. In their view, such surveys can play an integral role in facilitating the development of sexual health education policy at various institutional levels and provide a key impetus for the development and implementation of school-based sexual health curricula. Likewise, Welshimer & Harris (1994) also stressed the need for educators to gather tangible information about the attitudes and values of the community in order to overcome the fear of controversy and strengthen local support for sexuality education.