ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In the United States, “health class” has introduced generations of snickering sixth-graders to the fundamentals of sex.
But the terms “sex” and “education” are a mismatch in Pakistan: The subject simply is not taught in schools. Traditional cultural values have prevented any formal integration of the basics of the birds and the bees into the Islam-based education system.
Here, young people mainly learn about sex from whispered conversations with their schoolyard friends, or by experience. Many Pakistanis say their parents were loath to give them the facts about reproduction.
That leaves great room for misinformation, unsafe practices, uncontrolled family size, and abortion as a method of birth control, health advocates say.
The Koran strictly prohibits sex outside marriage. Many institutions here take that mandate so seriously that the very topic of sex has become taboo with teachers, and even family physicians shy away from broaching the subject with patients (including married ones).
The prohibition extends from primary schools to colleges. And, until now, no comprehensive sexuality courses have been taught in undergraduate medical colleges. Last month Dow University of Health Sciences, based in Karachi, announced that it will integrate reproductive health education into its curriculum beginning next academic year. The medical college said its future doctors will become prepared to treat patients for sexual and reproductive-related problems.
“So when we talk of infections, we will talk of reproductive infections,” said Sikander Sohani of the nonprofit organization Aahung, which collaborated with Dow University on developing the curriculum. “When we talk of [medical] history-taking, we will talk about taking reproductive health history as well. So it is a holistic approach.”
Aahung is an advocacy group focused on community programs promoting reproductive health and education in Pakistan. The Dow University sex-ed program will be taught to male and female students every semester. The group also developed a reproductive health guide for faculty and students that comports with the country’s cultural values.
Past attempts to teach sex-ed have met with fierce resistance from conservative religious leaders and parents wishing to protect their children from secular influences.
“This was me when I was 10,” one Pakistani said in an Internet forum conversation about sex-ed:
“Me: Mummy, where do babies come from?
“Her: Allah gives babies to the couples he likes most.”
But Sohani foresees no such cultural roadblocks to Dow University’s plan. The program is based on building clinical skills, he said, and removes moral or religious judgments from teaching. Faculty will focus on what is healthy and what is not when it comes to sex.
“Health starts with reproductive health,” Sohani said. “If sex is healthy, marriage is healthy, the relationship is healthy. They will make good and safe decisions regarding health and family planning. This will improve the economic health and social status of the country.”
The majority of Dow students will become family physicians. “When their skills and knowledge are updated, they will be comfortable with patients,” he said.