ucanews.com reporter, Hong KongUpdated: November 22, 2012 09:06 PM GMT
Wan Yanhai, an HIV/AIDS activist and director of the Aizhixing Research Institute says he once delivered a talk to students in Hangzhou in eastern China where one member of his young audience asked: “Can HIV/AIDS also spread among students?”
This level of ignorance of sexually transmitted diseases – and sex in general – is endemic in the world’s most populous nation, he says.
Sex education is taught late, he adds, and faces myriad obstacles that means the message too often gets lost including bureaucracy among lower level local officials, a lack of teachers and teaching materials and a rigid attitude towards sexual orientation.
“School teachers tend to teach abstinence only, not comprehensively on safe sex,” says Wan in a recent interview in Hong Kong.
Wan was a medical doctor in the Health Ministry before he left the Chinese civil service to begin fighting for the rights of people affected by HIV/AIDS in 1994. Since 2010, he has lived in exile in the United States following continued harassment aimed at undermining his work, he says.
In a report published last week, Aizhixing Research Center warned that hundreds of millions of Chinese students are under threat from HIV/AIDS due to inadequate sex education.
“Though the central government attaches importance to the epidemic and requires proper sex education to be taught, this subject remains taboo on campus,” says Wan.
Aizhixing’s report is due to be submitted to the United Nations which is due to review China’s progress in implementing the Covenant of Rights of the Child in February.
It cites research by Beijing University in 2010 showing that 22.4 percent of 22,288 interviewees aged 15 to 24 across China have had a sexual experience without accurate knowledge of reproductive health.
Meanwhile, 73.5 percent of young people interviewed in another survey cited by Aizhixing claimed that their schools teach almost nothing on sex education.
This level of misunderstanding and ignorance exists in a world that is rapidly changing, warns Wan, where students are more open to sexuality even if young homosexuals dare not tell their teachers or classmates about their orientation.
“They make gay friends through the internet, disco, bars, where they become prey for unprepared sexual activities,” he says.
Another challenge is that “infected young heterosexuals are harder to recognize as they do not need to find social groups to associate themselves as homosexuals do,” says Wan.
Official statistics record 780,000 HIV/AIDS patients across China but Wan estimates this number could be as much as 10 times higher.
“Carriers among drug-users, ethnic minorities and sex workers are hidden populations not being counted. It creates loopholes in prevention work,” he says, adding that it is even harder to project a figure for children affected by the epidemic.
He suggests more government transparency, widespread investigations into the number of infected children, public supervision of health and welfare budgets, engagement with health NGOs and a comprehensive overhaul of sex education with consultation from experts.
If these measures are not followed, he adds, China faces problems tackling HIV/AIDS, and so do its hundreds of millions of young people.