Liana took her sex education at school with a pinch of salt - she knew there was more to it, but did not expect it to come from her teacher. The name of the course itself was not a thrilling introduction - “healthy lifestyle” could pretty much be about anything but sex - and it was.
“It was taught by the teacher of physical education,” smiles Liana (not her real name), a 17-year old who graduated from a public school in Armenia’s capital Yerevan. “She would bring in the manual, read the lesson aloud, and nobody would listen. I remembered we covered the topics of HIV-AIDS slightly, as well as personal hygiene [e.g. washing carefully the genitalia]. We would just sit there and kind-of listen to her and ask no questions. And if we had questions, we would not ask them, as we would be shy to do so in front of everyone.”
That was it, the state-designed programme to address sexual education introduced in 2009 fell short of Liana’s hopes, and her classmates.’ It was also much shorter - of the intended 14 classes per year, she recalls only three during her 9th grade and sporadic classes later on.
Talking about sex in conservative Armenia remains taboo, as sexuality is an ‘off-limits’ topic in most families – children are too shy to enquire further, and parents are too embarrassed to prompt open, frank discussions. The result is that hormone-and-question loaded teenagers search for answers elsewhere. Just like Liana, many turn to random, unfiltered sites on the Internet.
Reproductive health professionals and sociologists agree about the importance of comprehensive sexual education (CSE), an instruction method that aims at providing teenagers with the knowledge, attitudes, skills, and values to make appropriate and healthy choices in their sexual lives. The unintended consequences for the lack of proper gender-focused and age-specific CSE, in Armenia as well as the rest of the world, are dire. Premarital sex, in teenage years, is increasingly common but adolescents often have only vague knowledge about safe sex practises - the results are accidental pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and sexual abuse - just to name a few.
Armenia’s law “On reproductive Health and Rights to Reproduction” approved in 2002, outlines the right for teenagers to be informed about sexual development and reproductive health - including contraception, pregnancy, abortion, and modern methods for preventing STDs – and it specifically tasks public schools, and by large education institutions, to implement these right. The reality is harshly different.
Six years later, the Ministry of Education and Science of Armenia introduced in all public schools “Healthy Lifestyle,” a new subject aimed at educating pupils between the 8th and the 12th grade “to preserve one’s health.” The course puts in the same cauldron tips on a healthy diet, the consequences of smoking, alcohol, and drugs, and then reproductive health, HIV-AIDS, and sexual development. There is no separate textbook, just a teacher’s manual and the course is assigned to physical education teachers.
The result is that unprepared educators skip critically relevant topics like fertilization and STDs, and more often than not, students end up, “either doing physical exercise or rest.”
Health professionals and psychologists have repeatedly asked for a more specific course on sexual education, taught by qualified instructors, but to no avail.
Vrezh Shahramanyan is one of them. A sexopathologist at Yerevan State Medical University whose dissertation focused on STD prevention and sexual education, the 35-year-old maintains that the lack of sexual education significantly negatively affects teenagers and the adults they will become.
“Teenage years are so crucially formative, when children develop their awareness about sex, their sexual preferences, their emotions, and they are vulnerable,” explains Shahramanyan. “[Sex] is real life, parents and educators should be careful.”
Sexual education as a separate subject is simply a necessity. Also it is very important to have manuals or textbooks for the pupils, ‘for keeping them away from sexualized and dangerous content on the web.’
“A healthy lifestyle is important, however it is not sexual education,” he stresses.
The Anania Shirakatsi Lyceum is a private institution in Yerevan where sexual education has been part of the curriculum as a separate, mandatory subject for 11th graders for over 20 years. In this, it is one of a kind.
“Each person takes up a specific role in life, and a profession, which gets trained upon. The only one common to everyone is our role as individuals with a sexual life. How come we are not educated about it?” reflects Ani Harutyunyan, who heads the psychological centre at the school.
Boys and girls are taught separately by a doctor and a psychologist respectively, with some united classes, on topics like gender, social role and sex. Lilit Chobanyan, a psychologist who has been teaching the pupils for about a year says that a lot of effort is put into, “creating a relation between the teacher and pupil and an atmosphere of trust.’
Like in the state school though, the course has a puzzling, and difficult to translate name, “Armenian woman and manpower,” (in Armenian Հայ կին և ասպետաբանություն), students do not seem much fussed about it, as the simple possibility to have access to an open discussion is valuable – regardless of its label.
“The course was popular as it provided answers to most of our doubts,” explains 17-year-old Elina Hovakimyan. “Now that we’re graduating I feel we have no issues, we can easily discuss among friends and family about such matters.”
An open discussion about sex with parents is a rare instance. In 2016, research carried out by the Yerevan-based NGO Women research Centre showed that parents do not openly talk about sexual development with their teenage children, barely touching upon routine hygiene practises – basic biological development like what menstruation is and what are for remaining off-limits. The research involved six focused groups and 34 in-depth interviews in four cities - Armavir, Sevan, Vanadzor and Yerevan.
“[When I got my period] I was afraid, I hid. My mother understood that something was happening to me. She realized that what is wrong is that a 9th grade girl did not know what that was. I had biology classes but [the teacher] did not cover such topics. Now, I would never let my child stay uninformed,” explained a woman during a focus group in Armavir.
The survey revealed that mothers tend to be more sensitive than fathers about the need of proper sexual education in schools. It also showed how conservative society is with regard to girls who need stricter rules to “stay on the right path.” “The prevailing opinion among parents is that each gender has its own ‘God-given’ nature, role, status, and behaviour.”
“Experience shows that the average age of the first sexual experience has gone down in Armenia,” explains Shahramanyan.
Statistics from the Ministry of Health set at 13 the cases of abortions among teengers between the ages 15-17 annually, a stable figure from 2015, while figures about unwanted pregnancies are more difficult to detect.
In the internet age, misinformation is just a click away and professionals consider that ultimately schools should be equipped to accurately and appropriately fill the education gap.
The Women Research Centre’s analysis states that “the curriculum lacks a number of important topics, such as the anatomy and physiology of sexual and reproductive organs, sexual relations and methods of contraception. Virtually all the topics emphasize only the bad consequences of sexual activity, which in itself is not an effective method.”
The average age for the first sexual experience has gone down to 15.5 years among boys and 17 among girls, states Shahramanyan, warning teenagers about the effect of sexual activity is not enough - they would still do it - in his opinion. “Teenagers try to start their sexual life as soon as they can, but they are uninformed or misinformed on basic practises like the use of condoms and other contraceptives. The same is about unintended pregnancies; many think that abortion is better than contraceptives. That is a result of being sexually undereducated,” he argues.
Responding to a request of comment, the Ministry of Education told Chai Khana that the “Healthy Lifestyle” course currently taught “is sufficient for sexaully educating teenagers” and no textbook is planned at this stage. The response also added that teachers of physical education are tasked to the course because “a healthy lifestyle is part of physical education and the two subjects are in harmony.”
A few schools approached professionals like Shahramanyan to hold lectures and meetings, not that these meetings are enough, but the doctor is optimistic. He is adamant that institutional bodies don’t realize the potential consequences of carelessness.
“I think that the Ministry of Education and Science will finally solve the issue. We have proposed to organize a seminar to train biology teachers, providing them with the relevant information and literature, to be distributed in schools.”