Scholars weigh in on what sex education, which to this day does not have a formal curriculum, should look like for Indonesian schools.
They propose following the World Health Organisation’s guideline for sex education, which can help students understand the many aspects of sexuality and reproductive health. Its module lays out in detail key learning points, ranging from ethics in adolescent relationships and respecting other people’s boundaries, to the ethical use of social media.
Currently, Indonesian schools teach limited aspects of reproductive health across their subjects. What little sex education we have is still restricted to abstinence and STD threats. There is little to no focus on consent, sexuality and other gender-sensitive issues.
Lawmakers are debating a sexual violence draft bill that includes thin provisions for sex education.
Read more: Conservative rejection of Indonesia's anti-sexual violence bill misplaced
Sri Wiyanti, a lecturer and director of the Law and Gender Society (LGS) in Universitas Gadjah Mada, acknowledges that the fight for a formal curriculum continues to be an uphill battle.
“Policymakers hesitate to take a firm stance. They’re still easily influenced by certain groups who only view sex education as a moral issue and not as a solution to our sexual violence epidemic,” she said.
Amid the lack of formal sex education, Indonesia faces a sexual violence crisis. More than 33% of women have experienced sexual abuse, a conservative estimate considering 90% of cases go unreported.
Consent must be front and centre
The Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) guidelines from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other United Nations bodies, which are designed for primary and secondary education, offer a human rights approach to sexuality education.
Ni Luh Putu Maitra Agastya, a senior researcher at the Center for Child Protection and Wellbeing at Universitas Indonesia (PUSKAPA), stresses how important this approach is, as it makes consent and healthy relationships the foundation of its curriculum.
“The focus should be to empower and prepare the children and youths to become healthy responsible adults that can make their own decisions and build healthy relationships with others, not to ‘sterilise’ them from risky behaviours,” she said.
“We need to have more discussions on consent and what it means when it comes to children and youths.”
A joint study by various groups including Lentera Sintas Indonesia, an organisation that supports sexual violence survivors, affirmed Agastya’s concerns. It found that more than half of Indonesians experience sexual abuse of one kind or another, all before turning the age of 16.
In 2016, a private elementary school implemented a pilot program on sex education that put consent front and centre. This happened after school administrators saw that a lot of male students teased their fellow female students by inappropriately touching their breasts.
However, public schools don’t have this level of flexibility.
Agastya argues that incorporating WHO’s CSE curriculum in Indonesia’s education system could fill this gap by providing a dedicated module on bodily integrity.
The importance of inclusivity
Sri Wiyanti added that teaching children about sexuality and consent must be done with a gender-neutral approach, which is something that teachers often neglect.
“This concept must be taught to all students, boys and girls. At the surface, it may seem the only victims are girls, but boys are also hidden victims,” Sri Wiyanti said.
Indonesia’s Commission on Child Protection recorded that, in 2018, the number of male victims in child abuse cases outnumbered female victims.
Another thing Agastya said was important about the CSE curriculum was that it laid out provisions on how to apply the materials in informal education environments.
“There are many at-risk school-age children who are not enrolled in schools. Think about street children or drop-out children due to poverty. Child marriage is higher amongst children from low-income families,” she said.
According to the World Bank, in 2017 around 7.3% of elementary-level children across Indonesia were out-of-school. Agastya says these children only get the chance to receive sexuality and reproductive health lessons from nongovernmental organisations, usually focusing on HIV/AIDS work.
“Age, gender, culture, and ability-inclusive material is very critical. We should look at the broader picture first before the curriculum is designed,” she said.
Parents are part of sex education
Agastya and Sri Wiyanti both argue that the need for parents and the community to be more involved with sex education is greater than ever.
Although comprehensive sex education modules remain vital, research acknowledges that parents still have an important role in ensuring children have an adequate understanding of sexuality and health.
Unfortunately, studies have also shown that most Indonesian parents don’t talk to their children about sexuality and reproductive health. This is mostly because they feel it is not culturally acceptable and taboo.
“Sex education still receives a negative response from society. Many believe that it leads children and adolescents to engage in premarital sex,” Sri Wiyanti explains.
UK research into parental involvement in sex education suggests elementary schools should keep parents in the loop regarding their sexuality education materials and methods. The research recommends setting up parent-teacher groups that meet regularly so teaching efforts at home and in classrooms are synced.
Some similar initiatives in Indonesia that provide safe spaces for parents to talk about child development already exist, such as the government’s Center for Family Learning (PUSPAGA) program. However, its reach and content on sexuality and reproductive health remain limited.
“Advocacy is needed to ensure that reproductive health education can be provided not only by schools and authorised agencies but by parents, peers, teachers, the community as a whole,” Agastya said.
Sri Wiyanti added: “It may sound like a war, but it’s one that’s too important to lose. I hope that the public will never get tired of discussing this.”