At closed classes in Ningxia school, teens are gaining confidence to discuss reproduction and hygiene issues
During a recent class in Zhangyi, Ningxia Hui autonomous region, teenage girls were having a lively discussion about menstruation, although some hid their faces in their hands or smiled sheepishly.
On the blackboard at the Zhangyi Middle School was an image of the female reproductive organs with information explaining their functions. Shan Rong, 14, said she was still too shy to look directly at the image and even felt embarrassed when hearing the organs' name spoken. "I knew nearly nothing about menstruation or sex before the age of 13 and my grandmother was the only one in my family who had told me about periods and sanitary napkins," she said.
In 2008, the Ministry of Education released a guideline on health education for primary and middle school students that included sex education. However, biology teachers tended to skip the sex-related part to avoid embarrassment.
Many Chinese parents prevaricated when it came to answering questions on sex education and reproduction, telling their inquisitive children "We picked you up from a trash can" and "You jumped out of a stone crack" when the youngsters asked where they came from.
In 2010, Yang Xiuhua, the principal of the school, launched an all-girls class to try and address the stigma of talking about physical development, reproduction and health issues. It was designed as a compulsory course for all girls age 14 and older. Each class lasts 40 minutes and has about 60 girls.
Out in the open
Yang teaches adolescent psychology and Nan Yuehong, a biology teacher at the school, has been responsible for the physiology side of the classes for the past 10 years.
"The class is more popular than we thought. While adults usually avoid talking about the issue, students are curious and crave this kind of knowledge despite their shyness in class," said 36-year-old Nan.
When Nan demonstrated the correct way to use sanitary napkins, girls lowered their faces and blushed. "The more shy a student appears, the more it proves it's necessary to popularize knowledge about hygiene and sex," Nan said. "They need to know more about the issues to protect themselves."
Over a semester, the students take about six classes, usually in the afternoon. If the classes clash with other subjects the girls can take them during the lunch break.
Lu Yongming, the school's vice-principal, said Yang started the classes because she was concerned about her students' psychological states when it came to sex education. "Yang found some puppy love and online crushes among the girls. In response to their parents' concerns, and to avoid potential risks, she brought up the idea," Lu said.
Educational material about female sexual organs is limited to an eighth grade biology book, so Nan also teaches the girls about menstrual hygiene and protecting themselves when coming into contact with young men. "Students have now become more willing to share their experiences about physical changes in adolescence. They openly discuss things outside of class," Nan said.
Shan Rong said previously she only talked about menstruation to close friends and girls experiencing it for the first time.
"Now, I don't feel ashamed when overhearing boys whispering things about girls menstruating," she said.
"It is a normal change in our bodies and there's no reason to be embarrassed. Sometimes, I even tell them not to be so serious about it."
Nan said children who have received sex education are less likely to encounter risks. "The more mysterious sex is, the more likely it is to lead to bad outcomes for children because of their curiosity," she said.
The school plans to open a sex education class for boys and encourage male teachers to instruct them on physiology and psychology.
Lu said: "Correct concepts and knowledge of sexual and reproductive health can affect their generation."
Zhai Anru and Li Yinglian contributed to this story.