Schools play an important role in ensuring that young people receive comprehensive education about relationships and sexual health.
Based on three decades of research from around the world, we know that school-based education is highly effective. It supports young people to be happy and healthy adults, and it reduces their risk of harm.
Sadly, many schools around the world seem to be nervous about how parents will respond if they provide sexual health lessons. They end up shying away from addressing important topics that can really support the personal and social development of their students.
It turns out that that these fears are misguided.
Worldwide, parents are actually very supportive of sexual health education. Even parents from highly religious countries such as Malaysia, Oman, Iran and Bangladesh are happy for this sort of education to be taught by schools.
Unfortunately, there has been little research in this area throughout Indonesia – the largest Muslim-majority country in the world. Therefore, our team set out to see how Indonesian parents truly felt towards school-based sexual health education.
We found that 98.4% of Indonesian parents – 38.2% male, 61.4% female, and 0.4% other – supported the delivery of sexual health education in schools, and 80% even felt this sort of education should begin in primary school.
Our sample consisted of highly religious individuals (97.6%), with nearly 40% of them identifying as Muslims, and provided a fair snapshot of Indonesia’s total population.
Although our work relied on convenience sampling and may not be an accurate reflection of how all parents in Indonesia feel, our preliminary results strongly challenge the assumption that Indonesian parents are barriers to the delivery of school-based sexual health education.
Changing tides in a challenging issue
For instance, according to a 2017 Demographic and Health Survey by the National Population and Family Planning Board (BKKBN) that surveyed people aged 15-24, only 12% of women and 6% of men know where to find information on reproductive health.
This increases their chances of engaging in risky sexual behaviours, putting them at great risk for exposure to HIV, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), unplanned pregnancy, unsafe abortion, child marriage, and sexual violence.
Unfortunately, delivery of sexual health education within Indonesian schools is limited and highly varied. Its inclusion in schools has also been heavily contested, for both cultural and political reasons, over many years.
Parents in our survey, however, indicated that lessons on personal safety (preventing child sexual abuse, sexual coercion or assault), STIs and decision-making in sexual relationships were extremely important. They also wanted certain biological topics such as puberty, reproduction and safer sex practices to be covered by schools.
These are all critical topics for young people to learn about.
However, we must be careful that schools do not simply use fear-based messaging to focus on issues such as diseases, unplanned pregnancy, and violence.
Ideally, we need our school-based education to take a more positive perspective and help young people in Indonesia develop important social, emotional and cognitive skills so they can achieve a sense of wellbeing in relation to their bodies, their relationships, and their sexuality.
The parents in our survey were even quite supportive of their child learning about sexual pleasure and enjoyment. However, of all the sexual health topics that they were asked to consider, this topic was deemed to be the least important.
This tells us that we need to do more to educate parents and schools about the importance of discussing sexual health in a positive manner and to not simply focus on bodies, bugs, and babies.
What Indonesian schools can do differently
Despite overwhelming support by the parents in our survey, nearly one-quarter were unsure if their child had received some form of sexual-health education at their current school.
This means that schools need to work hard to keep their parents informed about this sort of education so that both schools and families can work in partnership.
For parents who did know about their school’s programs, most rated the quality of this education to be fair to very good. However, 6% said the school’s efforts were poor.
Engagement with parents is the foundation of a new initiative that is currently being rolled out across all schools in England, for example. Relationships and sexuality education has recently become compulsory across all government, independent and faith-based schools. Each school in the United Kingdom (UK) is required to write a policy that clearly outlines how they will address topics of relationships and sexual health, and they must consult widely with parents when they write these documents.
We also know that a school-wide approach to relationships and sexual health education is the best model.
This means that comprehensive classroom instruction - provided by well-trained and enthusiastic teaching staff – is supported by meaningful engagement with families and local health groups. Like the model in England, this also includes genuine consultation with conservative parents and faith leaders.
Furthermore, a school-wide approach means that administration staff and the wider school environment values sexual health education, and helps reinforce important sexual health practices throughout the school community.
Every student in Indonesia should have access to age-appropriate education on contemporary relationships and sexual health, delivered by teachers who are engaging and well-supported. Students should then be able to step outside of their classroom and see these important life lessons about respect, communication and the importance of sexual wellbeing being addressed and acknowledged in the playground, at school events, and in all other areas of their school.
We hope that the results of our survey will make it clear to schools that Indonesian parents are supportive of relationships and sexual health education being provided to their child.
We hope it will inspire schools to expand upon their delivery, to adhere to international and evidence-based guidelines, and to provide truly comprehensive school-based sexuality education throughout Indonesia.
Sanyulandy Leowalu is the principal investigator for the main study above, and assisted in the writing of this article.