HO CHI MINH CITY
— Don’t expect to see teachers demonstrating condom use with bananas or cucumbers during a sex education class in Vietnam. Teachers avoid the subject of sexuality as much as possible, eschewing the practical for the minimal. If students get any instruction on the topic at all, it’s usually folded into a brief biology lesson about puberty or HIV.
But a group of young people are trying to do what high school teachers are too shy to do: Teach students what they need to know about sex.
A local chapter of AIESEC
, a global student organization, has been visiting high schools to deliver a crash course on sex. The members, who are college students, warn their audience about the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases and demonstrate how to use condoms, cucumber and all.
“At some high schools, the students are very active,” AIESEC’s Nguyen Thi Thuy Linh said. “They raise their hand and talk, and go on stage to put the condom on the cucumber in front of everyone.”
Sex has long been a taboo topic in Vietnam. But developments in recent years have made the consequences of unprotected sex more apparent. Vietnam is among the countries with the highest abortion rates, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which works with the United Nations to research reproductive health. The rate has risen especially since the turn of the century, after ultrasound technology made gender-selective abortions possible.
In addition, an increasing number of young people are migrating to the cities for work or university. Away from their families, the migrants live in single or shared rentals that make it easier to have premarital sex.
The newspaper Tien Phong (“Pioneer”) reported in September that, although Vietnamese are getting married later, the age they begin to have sex has decreased 1.5 years since 2008.
Between 2007 and 2012, the percentage of adolescent abortions compared with total abortions more than doubled at Tu Do, the top maternity hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, according to Tien Phong. What’s more, 55.8 percent of people living with HIV are between 20 and 29 years old.
The data suggests that more young people are having sex and at an earlier age, but sex education in public schools isn’t keeping up with the times. Most young Vietnamese learn about sex by searching the web, reading magazines, and talking with friends.
“Adolescent reproductive health care is not fully recognized or implemented, with sexual and reproductive health education in school still a sensitive issue,” UNICEF Vietnam wrote in a 2010 report.
Among young people, as few as 14 percent use contraception, while 23 percent don’t know about sexually transmitted infections, according to UNICEF.
It doesn’t help that adults still push the younger generation to wait until marriage to have sex, and create stigma by associating HIV with prostitution.
“We don’t really know how to keep safe,” said Linh, 22. “In Vietnam, we never talk to our parents about sexuality.”
Besides the lessons at local schools, AIESEC is reaching out to peers in other places. In August, the group held a festival for families in Ho Chi Minh City, using the theme of safe sex around the world. A sign at one booth said the Dutch openly discuss sex with their children, and posters at another booth read, “Safe sex is awesome!” During an international fashion show, contestants answered questions from the judges about sexually transmitted diseases.
To spread awareness elsewhere, AIESEC members visit HIV shelters and held an essay contest. They also talk to young people at parks, a popular destination for Vietnamese want to get away from their crowded houses. At the public parks, the volunteers discuss everything from homosexuality to abortion, and give out condoms.
The government has shown some support for condom campaigns, such as teaching sex workers how to use them, distributing contraceptives at hotels and karaoke bars, and posting billboards with sexy cartoon women saying, in this modern age, there’s no need to be shy about condoms.