NGO teaches countryside children about the birds and the bees

Updated: Jan 19, 2023 China Daily Print
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Volunteers have been making efforts to raise awareness of the facts of life among youngsters in isolated rural areas. Xin Wen reports.

The development of sex education in China, especially its popularization in rural areas, is still at an early stage. That's because sex is often a taboo subject in the countryside, which is reflected in the fact that few people are willing to receive formal education about it.

In 2016, during her sophomore year at the Ewha Womans University in Seoul, South Korea, Tao Yichen, started focusing on sex education for rural children and launched a nonprofit project on the subject.

In 2017 and 2018, the native of Lishui city, Zhejiang province, selected 41 volunteers (mostly university students) from 100 applicants. Then, in the summers of 2018 and 2019, she led 20 of them to her hometown in Jinyun county to provide free optional two-week sex education courses for local children.

The volunteers — 30 women and 11 men — compiled an e-book, The Childhood Patronus, to illustrate the differences between male and female bodies, along with information about puppy love and self-protection for children ages 6 to 12.

The lessons were easily digestible because the teachers used games and cartoons, and they also employed slang and other terms favored by youngsters.

Tao said rural primary students need to learn about physiological changes and also to cultivate appropriate values, such as understanding that it is not shameful to mention menstruation. "It's like a seed sown in their hearts. In this way, I hope we can help more children learn about themselves and understand the world," the 26-year-old said.

Statistics from the Ministry of Civil Affairs show that by the end of 2020, there were about 6.43 million "left-behind children" — whose parents had moved away in search of work — in China's rural areas.

Lack of information

In July 2019, Dong Wenyu, a graduate law student at Shanghai Maritime University, spent three weeks as a volunteer teacher in a village in Lanzhou, Gansu province, providing sex education for primary students.

Despite being the only male teacher in the volunteer group, Dong said he didn't feel embarrassed teaching the subject. Instead, he put more emphasis on biology-related tuition when teaching students in grades three and four (ages 8 and 9).

"During chats with students after class, I found that their regular teachers hadn't taught them any relevant sex knowledge," the 24-yearold said.

"For example, first and second grade students, who were ages 6 and 7, rarely understood what we were talking about in class but paid a lot of attention to the games we played.

"So, we only taught students in grades one and two about where we come from. Students in grades three and four could understand the ideas of where we come from and bodily structures but they had difficulty comprehending adolescence. The boys in the fifth or sixth grades tittered sneakily in class, laughing delightedly when I taught them the biological difference between men and women."

Dong sensed that while the students had no official channels to help them understand sexuality, they had their own ways of learning about it, and they laughed out loud at some of the facts. He also noticed that most of the students were confused by the concept of gender equality.

For example, when discussing the differences between men and women, Dong asked whether women could be police officers. "Some students said that girls can't become police officers," he recalled.

This made Dong think deeply about whether short-term volunteer teaching could help rural students gain a good understanding of gender equality. In subsequent classes, he gave more examples to help them understand the concept, such as asking if their mothers did most of the housework and whether their fathers ever helped with daily chores.

"They answered that their fathers might not be home often, but if they were at home they didn't do any housework," he said.

Dong believed that compared with giving a lecture on the different bodily structures of men and women, the concept was easier for the primary school students to accept as they were more willing to speak up and make points in class.

"And it (expressing views) is also an important part of education," he said.

Relationship reassessed

In August 2020, Xu Yinmin went to a library in Qianlinzi village in Linyi city, Shandong province, to provide primary school students with two-week sex education courses. The experience made him reassess his relationship with his own parents.

Xu's class discussed how babies are conceived, including how the sperm fuses with the egg to begin the fertilization process. Using cartoons, he explained the whole process of pregnancy by covering the condition of the expectant mother at three months, six months and just before birth.

"Our volunteers invited the students to wear rucksacks full of books on their fronts to simulate the feeling of being pregnant, enabling the children to feel how strenuous it is to carry a child (in the womb)," said Xu, who is now 24 and a math undergraduate at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

"In the game, the children often said the backpack was too heavy and that their waists were compressed. They said they were exhausted and that pregnancy is painful," he said.

"After, many started considering the mother's position more and asked what fathers can do to help during pregnancy."

Given the potential risk of sexual assault that left-behind children may face, the volunteers thought of a way to draw a body and allow the children to paint the private parts on the figure.

"We wanted to guide them to know that some parts are private, and if someone touches them, he or she is a bad person. Who might that person be? It may not be a stranger, but possibly even someone close to them," Xu said.

Help for residents

The voluntary teaching sessions undertaken by Xu and his seven peers also helped older residents.

Sun Jinxiu, who hails from a village in Linyi, has two sons. Her eldest boy, who is now 14, attended Xu's classes in 2020.

Sun was grateful to the volunteers because she had been worried that she might unwittingly confuse her children during discussions about puberty, so she had been afraid to discuss the issue with them face to face.

"My parents are illiterate, so I wasn't guided in the right direction when I was about 10. When my sons were 11 or 12 years old, I wanted them to be educated properly so they would understand the changes in their bodies and minds as they entered puberty," she said.

She appreciated the efforts made by the volunteer teaching team and hoped similar teachers would visit the village every year.

She said there were 3,700 households in the settlement and most families had at least one left-behind child. Because the parents didn't see their children for long periods, the grandparents became the primary caregivers but many neglected the children's development.

"Those kids lacked company, and they had difficulty communicating their feelings when they encountered new things," she said.

Tao, the initiator of the rural sex education program, said: "One single class taught by our volunteers can't fix the fundamental problems in rural sex education. However, I hope more people will be aware of the problems through this method and give more primary school students hope to face the future."

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