Here’s Why You Should Be Aware Of Your Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR)
January 7th, 2022 at 5:44 am
Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) is a critical component in helping adolescent girls and young women make autonomous decisions about their own bodies and sexuality. It empowers them to take informed decisions about their sexuality and relationships, keeping them healthy, safe and dignified.
The lack of comprehensive sex education (CSE) in Malaysia has limited young people from accessing their rights to safe, affordable, high-quality sexual and reproductive health services and information. Parents and caregivers are an important source of SRHR information, but they often struggle with their own insufficient knowledge of the subject.
Sisters in Islam (SIS), a non-governmental organisation working towards advancing the rights of Muslim women in Malaysia, is committed in assisting young women to further progress their knowledge of SRHR. Their representative, Shafiqah Othman – a women and children’s activist, has provided us with her insights and advice for young mothers and women in general to progress as an empowered informed parent or caregiver.
What is Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR)?
“Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) encompasses the overall wellbeing of women, not only in terms of health but every aspect of our lives. It is the right to our bodily autonomy — to be able to make informed choices regarding our own body and teaching us to respect the rights of others to bodily integrity. SRHR also includes the right to access information and services needed to support these choices and optimise our health.”
Why is it important for women and girls to know their SRHR?
“It is extremely important for girls and women, as individuals, to know and claim their rights to SRHR to ensure their physical and mental wellbeing. Although commonly, mothers are the closest figure to their children, I would like to stress that the responsibility of educating children should not be placed on mothers alone. Both parents play an equally important role on early education to spark health conversations about SRHR. The belief that only women or mothers should take serious note of these issues need to be debunked.
As young children are not capable of making their own informed decisions, parents in general must take on this role for their children. By equipping themselves with SRHR knowledge, they can make informed decisions on behalf of their children — decisions that protect their dignity and ensure their safety in all aspects of life.
For example, the procedure of female circumcision for our baby girls, otherwise known as FGM (female genital mutilation) is a topic that has been debated for years in Malaysia, despite being proven today of having no medical benefits for the child. Therefore, I encourage young parents or parents-to-be out there to do extensive research before making any decision for their child. For the sake of children’s wellness, do not adhere to “cultural norms” just because it has always been that way.
With that said, any adult who holds a position where they can educate children are responsible for teaching young children about SRHR in age-appropriate ways to ensure that children understand that they have the right to say ‘no’. Young children who don’t know their SRHR rights tend to get easily manipulated by authority figures, where they are more likely to comply instead of listening to their own intuition when they are not comfortable with adults. Lack of SRHR knowledge can also make children vulnerable to online and offline grooming, which is a huge problem today with access to technology.”
What are some examples of SRHR violations against women and children?
“Among them are: non-consensual sexual intercourse, forced abortion and pregnancy, denial towards contraceptive knowledge and access, female genital mutilation (FGM) and so forth. As mentioned above, there are a lot of instances where someone has taken advantage of a woman or a child’s lack of knowledge regarding SRHR to sexually abuse them or hinder them from optimising sexual health resources.
SIS has been working closely with fellow women’s rights NGOs such as AWAM, Women:Girls and FRHAM to gain more insights on the condition of violations towards women and girls in Malaysia. Based on our observation, a lot of our women and girls are still deprived of comprehensive awareness of their rights.
In response to this alarming situation, responsible parties such as school, and the authorities should put more stress on SRHR education by implementing Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE). This is an apparent need as our women and girls are still left in the dark regarding bodily autonomy with the superficial sexual health education we have been receiving in academic institutions.
The lack of awareness could then lead to more serious health and social issues including unintended pregnancy, Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), sexual harassment and baby dumping, and even child grooming.
There is a lot of misconception that CSE means teaching children how to have sex which may lead to more baby dumping, but that is far from the truth. It also encompasses knowing what healthy relationships look like and understanding and respecting your own and other people’s boundaries.
I believe that sexual health education should begin at home. Parents should initiate conversations surrounding sexual reproductive education with their children, even at an early age. It is important that children are familiar with their body parts and understand them. This is so that they can defend themselves and say ‘no’ to non-consensual physical touch from anyone, in the absence of parents or any trusted adults.”
In the event of a violation, where can a victim turn to for help and guidance?
“SRHR violations in both verbal and non-verbal forms are often dismissed as jokes among irresponsible adults in Malaysia, however we should stop dismissing them and downplaying the issue. ‘Harassments’ disguised as jokes should never be tolerated nor overlooked, as it can create desensitisation hence leading to more serious harassment and manipulation later in life.
Should anyone be faced with a situation that violates their rights, the victims should lodge a report to the authorities, their parents, schools, police, or any trusted adults etc. While I am aware that a lot of times, these same authority figures tend to brush off the severity of a sexual violation, that’s why I would also encourage victims to seek help from local women NGOs that are actively advocating against sexual violations such as AWAM, RRAAM, and FRHAM.”
Is SRHR still a taboo in Malaysia?
“Yes, definitely. It’s very common to see people shutting down conversations regarding SRHR online, but you don’t even need to look very far. The topic itself remains largely avoided even amongst family members due to the stigma surrounding the issue.
A lot of parents today were raised by parents who tiptoed around the topic of SRHR, so it is their responsibility today to break that cycle. With technology and accessibility to all kinds of information, it is our responsibility as adults to continue educating ourselves regarding SRHR. Parents need to be the leading example and primary source of information for their children to know their own bodies.
Remember: if you’re not talking to your child about these topics, someone else on the Internet will do that instead. A parent should be a child’s first and most trusted person to approach for any issues that need urgent attention.”
How does this stigma affect the access to SRHR information and services?
“Stigma surrounding SRHR has built an iron wall between the people and access to SRHR information and services. For example, there is stigma that only married women should go for pap smears even though it’s been proven that a woman should go for routine pap smears regardless of her sexual history. This stigma does not only exist within the community, but also within doctors, who sometimes refuse this procedure simply because the patient is not married.
Other than that, the stigma surrounding SRHR can make individuals afraid to seek help. Women facing underlying sexual health concerns may not be given the treatment that they need, and children who are victims of grooming will not know where to turn to seek help.
Just by hearing and looking at the word ‘sex’ in SRHR is enough to make people shy away from it. Because of this, any conversation regarding SRHR is quickly shut down because people view it as “shameful”, even though the knowledge is absolutely critical in ensuring an individual’s health and wellness.”
How can we overcome these social and cultural barriers?
“First, we need to dissolve the stigma surround SRHR by encouraging more public conversations. For it to happen, all members of society have to play their role in dissolving the stigma.
We can start by first educating ourselves and then bringing this knowledge to our peers and family. We can also talk about it on our own platforms, which may inspire and give others the courage to speak about SRHR as well.
It is important to note that rather than focusing about ‘sex’ itself, SRHR conversations lean more towards preventing more serious issues such as sexual health problems, unplanned pregnancies, STIs and sexual manipulation. By understanding this, communities will be able to work together to foster a healthy environment for women and children irrespective of ethnicity, religion, and cultural differences.
Aside from educating ourselves, our peers, and children at home, academic institutions should also stress the importance of SRHR education by implementing an independent subject of CSE into their syllabus.”
At what age should parents or guardians start educating children about their SRHR?
“It is never too early to start educating your child on SRHR. Talking about sexual reproductive health and body parts from when your child is young can help your child understand that SRHR is a part of their life. A child’s education should start as early as they start to understand the world and become more curious.
In this era of technology, parents can very easily look for education materials online that are age-appropriate for their children. The common framework for teaching children about SRHR are as follows:
- 0-2 years old: Teaching your child the anatomically correct terms for their genitals and privacy.
- 2-5 years old: Educating your child about boundaries, appropriate and non-appropriate touch, teaching consent and the power of ‘no’.
- 5-8 years old: Discuss with your child on how to safely explore digital spaces, boundaries with strangers, the kind of information you can or cannot share online.
- 9-12 years old: Educate your child on sexism and sexualisation, emotional and social changes as they are entering puberty, sexual choices and safe sex.
Of course, this is just a guide and may be different depending on the parent or child. But it is important to remember that early education would imprint a sense of comfort and familiarity on a child. This is crucial to ensure that they would be comfortable enough to share their issues and concerns regarding SRHR with their parents when they are older. It also teaches them to not tolerate any form of non-consensual touch or harassment by friends or strangers when they enter their adulthood.”
How can this education create a healthier society?
“By educating children at an early age, children would have early exposure of what is safe for them and what is not. This allows them to make informed decisions about their relationships and body as they grow older. Sexual health education does not only teach the basic of puberty and development, but also instills in children that they have the right to decide when to say ‘no’ when faced with non-consensual situations.
CSE also teaches children to respect the bodily autonomy of others, including differentiating what constitutes as sexual violence, understand why sexual violence is wrong, and how to find help if they have been assaulted.
We need to set the stage for open and honest discussions from a young age. The sense of comfort and trust will enable children to openly communicate about their sexual health. You’d be amazed to see how open discussions regarding SRHR between a parent and child can protect children throughout their lives.”
How should a parent or guardian start the conversation on SRHR – what are some practical examples to make the conversation easier?
“The key message to an early SRHR education is that your child should be comfortable to come to you for open, honest and reliable information. They should also trust you enough to know that they should not feel scared or embarrassed to ask you about sexual reproductive health.
Ms Srividhya Ganapathy, co-founder of CRIB Foundation (Child Rights Innovation & Betterment) has gone a step further to educate parents to view their children as teammates, instead of viewing them as terrorists.
“Is your child a teammate or a terrorist? We don’t trust terrorists; we always think they’re up to something, we spy on them and feel no qualms about breaching their privacy. However, we treat teammates differently. We share with our teammates the same common goal (in this case, the safety of your child) and concerns about their well-being. We identify potential problems together, discuss them regularly and alert each other as soon as they occur.”
Another important thing to keep in mind is approaching the child and explaining to them in age-appropriate ways. Educating them from a child’s level of understanding is important in getting the knowledge across.
It is almost every child’s nature to be interested in animations, thus parents can leverage on this to introduce education materials that can implement awareness in the child with regards to their own body, nurturing them to differentiate which types of touch are acceptable and which are not— from their parents, peers, or any adult.
Additionally, informal education can be initiated during bath time where parents can teach children to get to know their body parts. The path to equipping your child with CSE could start with something as simple as using the correct terms to refer to their reproductive parts (as mentioned above).
Worth reminding once again that if your child doesn’t learn it from you, they will eventually learn it from someone else. You may have your child’s best interest at heart, but others might not.”
What are some dedicated online resources that empower children about their bodies and rights?
“More and more digital content is being developed to educate children about knowing their body parts and their rights to protect them. Among them are Fight Child Abuse YouTube channel and WonderGrove Kids. YouTube channels like these would help parents naturally initiate SRHR conversations with children as they are engrossed in animated videos.
Other than that, we have local groups like CRIB Foundation and The Talisman Project that are dedicated to educating parents and children alike on children’s rights. Monsters Among Us MY also has plenty of resources to combat child sexual abuse and they even have a platform called Lapor Predator where a victim can report their abuses to a trusted adult within the organisation.”
How can SRHR services be more youth-friendly to enable young people to access the advice and services they need?
“I strongly believe that first and foremost, SRHR education should begin at home. That way, a child will grow up open, comfortable, and knowledgeable about their rights to SRHR. This will allow them to have the courage to seek the services that they need.
I also believe that SRHR services should be discussed more widely within society so we can start eliminating the ‘shame’ that comes with talking about sexual health. People deserve to know the kind of treatments and check-ups they need to have in order to ensure their health and safety. As mentioned above, some doctors even refuse certain treatments or procedures on some patients due to stigma. It is important that we continue to speak against these injustices, especially since it involves an individual’s health.
Nowadays, a lot of NGOs and digital media have been actively advocating for SRHR in non-judgmental and empathetic ways. A lot of youths rely on these resources for knowledge. These entities loudly advocating for SRHR also have helped pave the way for younger generations to speak up about SRHR and demanding their rights, which leads to them mustering the courage and confidence to seek services despite the stigma.”
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