Sex Ed a Taboo in Armenia: If Taught at All, It’s by Phys Ed Teachers, Some 80 Years Old
By Karine Aghajanyan
Sex Ed is the process of educating people about sex, but in Armenia it is not as simple as that.
There is a lack of sex education structure. Both society and government do not think it is an essential part of civilized society. Thus, I wanted to understand where the shame and silence surrounding it comes from.
Traditionally, adolescents in many cultures were not given any information on sexual matters since discussions of these issues have been considered taboo. Given that Armenian culture and society are very conservative, this is a huge taboo surrounded by fear and misconceptions.
Sexuality is an important aspect of the life of a human being and almost all people, including children, have questions regarding the unknown.
Sex education may be taught informally, in conversation with a parent, friend, religious leader, or through the media. But it can also be taught formally by educational institutions where children and adults are studying. The fact that Armenian society has a lot of stereotypes surrounding sex, including LGBT sex education, and topics dealing with human sexual behavior (safe sex practices, masturbation, premarital sex, and sexual ethics) is due to the lack of education and information among adults and teenagers.
What do Armenian students think about sex education?
Katarine, an 11th grade student from public school N29 in Yerevan, says she thinks that sex education is the information given at school or in the family while an adolescent is developing.
She said that she received all the information and answers to her questions mainly from her parents and her elder sister. Her questions were not taken seriously when she was younger than 12. Now she is 15 and thinks that sex education at schools is not working due to several reasons. One reason is that teachers avoid some questions and tell students that they can find all necessary information in their biology books. Another reason is that both boys and girls are shy about asking questions in the classroom in front of the opposite sex.
16 year-old Arthur from school N190, said that sex education shouldn't be taught at school and that it is something you can learn from your own life experiences. He told me that he got all the information he knows from the Internet and his male classmates. The 11th grader says he will probably ask his father questions about issues he can’t find answers to elsewhere. He told me that he’s never had any conversation about sex with his parents, although he’s been enthusiastically reading about sexual organs in the biology book. He said that issues like gender and sexual orientation are brought from Europe in order to destroy Armenian society and since he’s been raised according to traditional values he is opposed to LGBT rights and pre-marital sex.
Comments from a sexual pathologist and psychologist
Vrezh Shahramanyan, who holds A PhD. in Medicine and works as a sexual pathologist in Armenia, says there is a common perception that sex education is a lecture heard at school or a serious topic of conversation with parents. This is a very narrow approach to sex education. It is more than teaching a child what the reproductive organs are and how to have sex when they grow up. It includes gender roles, gender identities, sexual orientations and different social norms.
This is why if you lecture a child about how he/she should respect women; it will not work all the time. Dr. Shahramanyan also says that sex education is the essential part of the general education and upbringing of a person in the society. Thus, it starts once the baby is born.
“As a doctor, sexual education for me is a difficult task which aims to promote the harmonious development of the younger generation, their sexual behavior and reproduction, as well as the creation of the psychological and moral bases,” says Shahramanyan.
Sexual education is different than enlightening one about the subject of sex, because sexual education includes the ethics, social norms, behavioral norms as well as psychological aspects of understanding sexuality and sexual orientation. This explanation usually includes information about physiology and biology, as well as contraceptives, physical and biological processes in the human body, which is being presented to a child at the age of 14.
Rajni Avagian, a graduate student from the Department of Psychology at Yerevan State University, said: “If we look at the situation right now in Armenia, there is no sex education as a whole, or it is very poor, but I can’t say that it is completely absent. While every child has an urge to discover his or her body and to understand how things work from the youngest age, this is when parents start becoming anxious, because any exploration of one’s own sexuality is perceived as masturbation, which parents point to as something immoral or wrong. But in fact it is a very natural biological reaction to the development of a human being.”
Ms. Avagian said: “Imagine a one year old child trying to identify his body and they naturally begin to touch and move their hands, head, eyes, hair. But when they try to do the same with their own genitals, it is considered something shameful. It becomes a process perceived as improper and shameful.”
Because of the lack of sex education, there is an interesting phenomenon at work. For a male, the sexual perception of himself as a father and a sexual being is accepted by society, but the woman’s perception of herself and her sexuality, other than being a mother, is not. The woman does not own her sexuality. In this case, it is very common to have men discussing their sexual activities. On the other hand, it is not acceptable at all for a woman to talk about her sexual experiences and sexuality.
This is why it is necessary to mention the Armenian tradition called ‘Red Apple’. Tradition states that women must be virgins until they get married. But the same is not expected of men. It doesn’t matter if a women is having pre-marital sex with a man she is about to marry; she is labeled immoral, a prostitute.
Ms. Avagian stated: “In most of Armenian families sex is considered something only for reproduction, which is not true, as sexual relations can be a way to relax and to receive pleasure.” Moreover, she believes that it can contribute to building a strong relationship with the person one is having sex with. The Internet provides a huge database of information today, and whatever young people learn about sex will most likely be wrong and unhealthy. As there is no a single structure to educate youth about sex, they turn to pornography for information.
Sex education during the Soviet era and in today’s Armenia
Prior to the independence of Armenia 24 years ago, there was a strong veil covering the theme of sex. Today, we have the other extreme - youth can easily access any information concerning sex. It went from extreme lack of information to extreme familiarity and accessibility.
During Soviet era, the word “sex” was used in press articles describing the vices of capitalistic society. It was not typical in conversational speech. The Soviet government was concerned with preserving family values, mainly because it could benefit from it. A family was the minimum unit the government could control; hence the name “social unit.”
Everything that happened outside of family life was hard to control and therefore was deemed suspicious and undesirable. Sexual freedom was considered destructive for family values. The government designed various administrative barriers to prevent sex outside of wedlock. People who were not officially married could not share a room in a hotel, or stay overnight in a students’ dorm. Sexual education in schools was nonexistent as it could lead to debauchery. People were given no information about contraception since it was believed that the lack of knowledge would contribute to abstinence. Interestingly enough, the phenomenal number of abortions performed on Soviet women was completely dismissed. The only form of sexual education available was boring lectures describing STDs given at vacation retreats.
This issue not only challenges Armenia but the entire region. Post-soviet countries are having a hard time overcoming the “no sex” soviet ideology and the habit of keeping silent about it.
As a result, the rate of abortion among teenagers (the age range 15-19) in Armenia keeps growing. Some doctors say that in different regions in Armenia adolescents start having sexual intercourse at the age of 14-15. This can be a result of different social matters, such as early family union in rural areas.
As a solution Ms. Avagian finds that if 10% of parents would change the way they perceive sex education, it would have an effect on others as well. She hopes that after a few generations Armenia will have appropriate sexual education and a healthy society.
The prohibition or refusal to talk about sex and answer questions related to it, leads to children feeling ashamed. Many of their questions go unanswered or they have a wrong perception about some processes of the human reproductive organs. This is why when children don't find satisfactory answers within their families; they try to find answers or information from other sources. This search may lead to accessing pornographic material, which is for entertainment and is no way educational.
Questions about sexual health and sexual health issues should be discussed with specialists; with professionals who possess comprehensive information about the topic. Amateur discussions can have fatal consequences for teenagers because they can get a very wrong perception of sex, rape, love, relationships and contraception.
The situation in US, EU, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Russia
The situation of sex education in Russia and Georgia is very similar to Armenia. According to Pavel Astakhov, the Children's Rights Commissioner for the President of the Russian Federation, Russian students currently don't receive any sex education in schools.
According to Simon Janashia, the Director of National Curriculum and Assessment Centre at the Georgian Ministry of Education and Science, there is no appropriate subject on the curriculum that could integrate sex education in Georgian schools. According to International Encyclopedia of Adolescence, an independent sex education class or sexual health unit of a certain course is not offered by the Turkish education system; however topics such as reproduction and puberty are covered in science classes.
On the other hand, in United States, Azerbaijan and European countries, the situation is different. Starting from 2001, as a part of the initiative of UNFPA and the Ministry of Education of Azerbaijan, the first Family Life Education curricula named ‘Basics on Reproductive Health’ for 9 - 11th grade students was introduced; this is a voluntary course in secondary schools.
According to the publication Sex Education in the U.S.: Policy and Politics, most adolescents in the United States receive some form of sex education at school at least once between grades 6 and 12; many schools begin addressing some topics as early as grades 4 or 5. According to European Parliament, schools of EU member countries provide sex education classes, which vary from country to country. In some EU countries it begins at the age of 6 in some countries at 9 or 12, and sexual education can be mandatory or non mandatory. For example in 18 countries it is mandatory, the list of non mandatory countries includes UK, Romania, Poland, Bulgaria and Italy.
Armenia’s “Law on Education” states that teenagers have a right to sex education. There is an extensive article on reproductive health, as well as the right of a child to be aware of his/her puberty.
According to a July 31, 2008 decree by Armenia’s Minister of Education, all public schools must include a new course called "Healthy Lifestyle". Non-obligatory classes conducted by “Healthy Lifestyle” were introduced but it was the school principal’s decision whether or not to include these classes into the curriculum. Prior to 2011 the principal could decide that there were no hours to allocate to the class and the course would not be implemented. As of January 2011 these classes became obligatory for all students in all schools. The course lasts for 15 hours and will be taught to students in grades 8 and 9 (age 13-14).
(The “Healthy Lifestyle” course, implemented in collaboration with the Armenian branch of World Vision, includes topics as the principles of healthy living, healthy eating, risky habits, human trafficking, gender and sex, gender violence, sex offences, reproductive health and family planning.)
Since this has been a pilot project for a few years it is not possible to say what it will be like when applied in general.
Young people I met are very enthusiastic about these classes which cover topics on growing up, hygiene, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), sexual violence and relationships. However teachers conducting these classes receive only one very short training session on these topics since they are not expected to teach reproductive health issues only. They teach other classes at the same time and often do not manage to cover all topics during the time allotted due to lack of resources and skills. In reality, the quality and methods of instruction are highly questionable, because the classes are taught by physical education teachers.
What the statistics say about safe sex practices
According to statistics about HIV/AIDS in Armenia provided by the National Centre for AIDS Prevention of the Ministry of Health, from 1988 to December 1, 2014, 1,953 HIV cases had been registered in the country among citizens with 334 new cases of HIV infection registered during the first eleven months of 2014.
The highest number of HIV cases was reported in Yerevan, the capital: 667 cases, which constitute 34.2% of all registered cases.
The registered cased of HIV/AIDS cases leads to the opinion that safe sex practices aren’t taught in schools. Possibly there are many other reasons but the key of prevention of any sexually transmitted disease is the awareness and knowledge about the topic.
According to the report, prevalence of and reasons for sex-selective abortions in Armenia conducted and created by the National Statistical Service of the RA the overwhelming majority (76.6%, or 1,455 women) of the surveyed 1,899 women started sexual life when they reached mature reproductive age, 20.4% started when they were 17-18 years old and only 2.2% when they were minors (14-16 years old). This means that the sexual education must be conducted at school prior to start of sexually active life of a citizen.
Sex education taught selectively
Some private schools provide sex education separately according to their own methodology. For example, Yerevan’s Anania Shirakatsi Lyceum teaches a course called “Armenian woman and chivalry”. The course is taught for 1-2 years and it tackles topics starting from physiology and ending with philosophy, parent-child relationship and parenthood. The students become familiar with sex and related topics.
The reason why sex education is not being taught at schools as an obligatory subject alongside, for example, mathematics or literature, is due to society’s perception of sex and sexual relations. These topics are considered private matters and not warranting discussion in the school setting. Another reason is in lack of interest from the Ministry of Education.
Armineh Muradyan, Chief Specialist of the Department of General Education in Armenia, stated clearly that "Healthy Lifestyle" is not a subject but rather a course and the instruction hours necessary for the course are taken from other subjects. Ms. Muradyan said that all the teachers undergo special training organized by the National Institute of Education. All the teachers who pass are given a teaching certificate.
Some students and their parents stated that the course is not being taught properly. For example 16 year-old Stepan, from school N172, said that the physical education teacher is an 80 year-old woman who told the class during the “Healthy Lifestyle” course: “Boys, if you’ve started seeing erotic dreams then you're already sexually mature.”
Is this a responsible approach to a matter as sensitive as sexual maturity?
There are manuals and brochures available in Armenian, translated from English or Russian, and are mostly for those teaching the course. But there is no textbook written by Armenian professionals. There is the need of a textbook for students because it will provide information or illustrations about the topics. Sometimes, students are shy and don’t ask questions during the class. But if they have textbook in their hands they can read and familiarize themselves with different themes at home or elsewhere. Students are typically responsible for obtaining any book or information source.
To the question whether there is a mechanism in place to monitor the course to see if it is being taught according to stated guidelines, Ms. Manucharyan replied: “It is being monitored by the Inspectorate within Ministry of Education. And, like in the case of Armenian language instruction, there are no monitoring mechanisms for the Healthy Lifestyle” course.”
So I asked her if it is not being monitored, what can be done in order to change the situation. Ms. Manucharyan avoided answering and said maybe the ministry of education should pay more attention to this.
Ms. Manucharyan also said that before the "Healthy Lifestyle" course was introduced, the Ministry of Education conducted different studies and surveys in collaboration with international organizations. Eventually the department came to the conclusion that the subject would be called "Healthy Lifestyle", as knowledge about healthy nutrition is just as important as sex education and it is equally important to have information about different diseases and how to avoid them.
According to Ms. Manucharyan the name was chosen as a substitute for “sex education” in order to avoid probable opposition from parents.
According to UNESCO, Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) is an age-appropriate, culturally relevant approach to teaching sex and relationships by providing scientifically accurate, realistic, non-judgmental information. Sexuality education provides opportunities to explore one’s own values and attitudes and to build decision-making, communication and risk reduction skills about many aspects of sexuality.
The sex education situation in Armenia is in bad shape.
There is a need for properly trained professionals who can tackle sensitive issues and teach children to question different social norms, gender, sexuality and many other topics, as well as encouraging youth to educate themselves, ask questions, explore and raise awareness about sexuality as a whole.
The increasing number of abortions, HIV/AIDS and other STDs, domestic violence cases, and gender based violence underline the need for greater attention to be paid and a solution found to the absence of sex education as a separate, fully developed, obligatory education subject at schools and universities.
One-sided orientation and the poor quality of sexuality education are often blamed for growing challenges in sexual health, such as increasing pregnancy among teenagers, rising rates of sexually transmitted infections and sexual violence.
Helping to improve sexual health in general is a major goal of sex education.
Top photo: World Vision manual for teenagers: “Let’s talk about that”
Bottom photo: Anti-smoking poster at Healthy Lifestyle class in a Gavar school
(Karine Aghajanyan is a freelance journalist and writer with many years of experience in human rights education and social work. She studied Law and Political Science in Armenia. She is also a feminist activist.)