Kyrgyzstan: Time To Talk About Sex
Seventeen-year-old Olga (not her real name) is raising her one-year-old baby boy on her own in Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek. She left school and moved in with her boyfriend when she got pregnant, but he abandoned her just two weeks after she gave birth.
Looking back, Olga says she regrets ending up as a single mum at such a young age, dependent on her parents and without a proper education. She would like to study law and move into her own place, but for now these dreams on hold.
“I was careless – I wanted to grow up fast,” Olga said, admitting that she never thought about the possible consequences of unprotected sex, or how she might be affected by pregnancy.
“No one explained it to us,” she said.
Teenage pregnancy is a growing phenomenon in Kyrgyzstan, exacerbated by inadequate sex education in schools, experts say. Now the Kyrgyz government is taking action to address it.
Kyrgyzstan’s national statistics agency says the birth rate among girls aged 15-17 is rising. In 2006, there were 4.4. births per 1,000 girls in this age group, whereas in 2011 the rate was 7.2 per 1,000.
The majority of teenage pregnancies in Kyrgyzstan occur among girls in rural areas who marry according to the Muslim rite, but under the state’s legal age of 17. Experts say pregnancies among urban, secular teenagers like Olga fall into a different group, with inadequate sex education a major factor.
Lola Davletova, a gynaecologist at a district hospital in Bishkek, told IWPR that she saw a lot of teenage pregnancies, and the girls were often in a state of terror.
“They are panicking because it’s something they don’t know anything about,” Davletova said, adding that was is left to her and her colleagues to explain the options and what to expect from continuing with the pregnancy – considered safer than abortion because of the potential complications. But having a baby so young also carries health risks for both mother and child, not to mention the social stigma, Davletova added.
“It would have been better, of course, if they’d been taught all this in school,” she said.
To address the problem, the government announced at the end of May that it would be introducing a new reproductive health bill designed to bring the country’s legislation into line with international standards.
The bill emphasises the importance of sex education in schools, with one provision making it a specific obligation for the education and health ministries to design and implement programmes of this type.
Last month, the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, in Kyrgyzstan, launched an awareness-raising campaign that engaged four of the Central Asian state’s most popular artists – Gulnur Satylganova, Kanykei, Nurbek Savitakhunov and Omar Janyshev. The UN agency says the celebrities will talk about their own experiences as teenagers as part of an initiative to encourage a sense of personal responsibility for sex, pregnancy and birth.
Kalys Shadykhanov, a Kyrgyz health ministry official, told IWPR that his institution was already working to raise young peoples’ awareness of reproductive issues. He said school programmes encouraging a healthy lifestyle included lectures and talks on sex education. But critics of this approach say sex education should be taught as a stand-alone subject by healthcare specialists.
Alfia Samigullina, a gynaecologist with the Bishkek city health department, said teachers were failing to provide useful or practical information to their pupils.
“They don’t know the subject well. Teenagers ask a lot of tricky questions and the teachers panic or feel embarrassed about answering them,” Samigullina said, adding that as a result, issues were often glossed over or ignored.
Asked whether it would be better to have sex education taught by medical professionals, Shadykhanov declined to answer, but he pointed out that training courses were provided for staff teaching sex education.
Ulugbek Akishev, a 20-year-old from Bishkek, says he found the lessons he got at school “useless”. Students were told they should practice safe sex without any proper explanation as to what this might involve, and Akishev said the only thing they got out of the lessons was free condoms.
Azat Orozbaev, from the town of Karakol in the northern Issykkul region, said sex education was only introduced at his school after two pupils were caught having sex on the top floor. He said he was the only one of his peers who knew about sex, and that was because his mother told him about it.
Past efforts to provide sex education have been hampered by conservative attitudes in Kyrgyz society.
Meder Omurzakov, a UNFPA representative in Kyrgyzstan, told IWPR that initiatives to provide education in the classroom were sometimes misunderstood.
“When they hear the words ‘sex education’, many often think that we are teaching [pupils] how to have sex. But that isn’t the case,” Omurzakov said.
Galina Skripkina, from the Social Democratic Party parliamentary faction, said she doubted whether sex education could be rolled out across the education system because of the traditional values still common in the country.
She recalled how in 2003, the education ministry was forced to recall a textbook on sex education for secondary schools that was promoted by the National Centre for AIDS Prevention and had been in use for four years, after an organised campaign to ban its “offensive” content.
Tursunbay Bakir-Uulu, now an Ar-Namys party politician, was Kyrgyzstan’s human rights ombudsman at the time. He was among those who lobbied for the textbook to be removed from school libraries.
“It’s absolutely wrong to teach children sex and how to use a condom. It’s all influenced by Western culture,” Bakir-Uulu said, insisting that Kyrgyz traditions were different and lessons should teach moral values about relationships and families.
Other politicians support the new initiative. Lawmaker Jyldyzkan Joldosheva, a member of the Ata Jurt party, agreed that sex education was not given proper attention in the schools.
Another legislator, Narynbek Moldobaev, said, “It goes without saying that they [teenagers] need to be educated, since their physical growth outpaces their emotional maturity.”
Although clerics have been criticised for carrying out religious marriages for couples under the age of legal consent, a spokesman for the country’s central Muslim authority told IWPR that his organisation supported the idea of teaching sex education in schools and did not condone teenage pregnancy.
Zarema Sultanbekova is an IWPR contributor in Kyrgyzstan.