BANGKOK, Thailand – If you are a teen with a sexual urge, what should you do?
It's a question faced by young people across the world, and one met with many responses.
So high school seniors in Thailand were perplexed this year when they were asked for the answer in a nationwide multiple-choice test for students hoping to win a coveted place at university. They were given five possible options to choose from:
A: Call friends to go play football (soccer)
B: Talk to your family
C: Try to sleep
D: Go out with a friend of the opposite sex
E: Invite a close friend to see a movie
Most students had no idea how to respond. And it quickly became clear that they were not the only ones who struggled to identify the right answer. Parents and teachers were equally baffled.
The story soon attracted national media attention, and Thai educational experts were interviewed to share their insights. But even they seemed uncertain. The tentative consensus was that students were probably expected to pick option B — “Talk to your family.”
It seemed like the answer adults might want to hear, even though most teenagers in the real world would be appalled at the very idea of discussing their sexual urges with their parents. The most realistic answer was probably option D — go on a date.
So there was widespread incredulity when the preferred answer was eventually revealed by Dr. Samphan Phanphrut, head of the national exam board that drew up the tests. It was option A —“Call friends to go play football.” Regardless of whether they were male or female, Thai youth were supposed to deal with sexual urges by playing soccer.
For many Thais, the key lesson learned from the saga had nothing to do with soccer. Rather, it was that Thai officials have a total lack of understanding about the lives of teenagers and the importance of sensible sex education.
Growing teen pregnancy problem
It's an issue that is causing increasing problems in this Southeast Asian country.
"The number of pregnant teenagers is growing every year. And they are getting younger and younger," said Apiradee Chappanapong of Plan Thailand, an NGO that champions children's rights and education.
In fact, Thailand has the second-highest pregnancy rate among 15-19 year-olds in the world, according to the government’s Office of Welfare Promotion, Protection and Empowerment of Vulnerable Groups. (South Africa has the highest rate).
The issues in Thailand are complex. Contrary to the country's image as a hedonistic sex tourism destination, Thai culture remains highly conservative, but premarital sex is widespread although many older Thais regard it as taboo. (As a result, underage girls are often pressured to marry, especially in rural areas.)
This conservatism means subject is rarely discussed in Thai families, and as the debacle over this year's university exams demonstrated, schools are also failing to teach Thai youth what they need to know.
Many teachers and education ministry bureaucrats refuse to acknowledge that premarital sex is a reality. Instead of teaching teenagers how to avoid pregnancy through the use of contraception, they preach abstinence. And when Thai teenagers become pregnant, they often have nobody to turn to. Legal abortion is only available to teenagers if their parents approve, and many Thai girls don't consider that an option.
“I don’t think my school taught me enough about sex education,” said Nat who asked not to reveal her full name, a 17-year-old who became pregnant after running away from her home in an area of northern Thailand where traditional values remain strong.
Unable to get a legal abortion because she was estranged from her parents, she chose the dangerous option of ordering abortion pills online and taking them without any medical supervision. She told me she suffered severe vaginal bleeding afterwards.
Many conservative Thais deny that outdated and incompetent education is the problem. They say Thai teenagers are being corrupted by dangerous modern influences such as racy movies, social media and Internet chat rooms. Facebook was even cited as one of the causes of Thailand's growing teenage pregnancy crisis in a recent study by the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB).
Dangerous illegal abortions
Another controversial issue is whether Thailand's abortion laws should be reformed. Approximately 95 percent of Thais are Buddhists, according to the CIA World Factbook, who believe taking any life is a sin. Officially, abortion is illegal except in cases of rape, incest or underage sex, or when the mother's physical or mental health is at risk.
Even when women have a legitimate reason to undergo a legal abortion in Thai hospitals, many are deterred by the judgmental attitude of doctors and nurses, according to 39-year-old activist Supatra Panuthut, who counsels women with unplanned pregnancies at Sahathai Foundation in Bangkok.
For most women who want to terminate a pregnancy, the only option is to do so illegally. In many cases, abortions are conducted using unsafe procedures and in unsanitary conditions. In a notorious case in 2010, more than 2,000 aborted fetuses were discovered at a temple in Bangkok after locals complained of an unpleasant smell. Earlier this April, a five-month-old fetus was found dumped in a hospital bathroom. Newborn babies have also been found abandoned in bus shelters and garbage bins.
A small number of abortion clinics run by NGOs providing safe and compassionate treatment occupy a legal grey area: they are technically illegal, but the authorities have generally allowed them to operate, as long as they do not promote their services too openly.
But recently police raided one of these clinics after a well-known model told the media she had an abortion there. Panuthut fears the raid will end up discouraging some women from seeking abortions at responsible clinics and could lead to more unsafe backstreet abortions.
It seems unlikely that the law will be changed to allow more Thai women to legally terminate their pregnancies. Successive Thai governments have shown no enthusiasm for such a controversial move, and indeed some Thais want to see the law tightened even further so that abortion is totally outlawed.
Coping with unwanted pregnancies
Meanwhile, out of the approximately 250,000 Thai teenagers who become pregnant each year, half of them seek abortions, according to Dr. Yongyut Wongpiromsarn, Senior Expert in Mental Health, Thai Ministry of Public Health.
That means more than 100,000 children are being born each year to teenage mothers who in many cases cannot properly look after them.
Often these children are raised by their grandparents or other relatives, rather than their biological mothers.
This was how Panida Saengjan coped when she became pregnant at the age of 16 while she was a high school student in Bangkok. She told me she was terrified of the dangers of an illegal abortion, but admitted she was also too immature to look after her baby, a boy she named Haroon.
Now 4 years old, Haroon has been raised by Saengjan's mother. When I met them at their home, Saengjan was laughing and playing with Haroon, whom she said was more like a little brother to her than a son.
Many teenage mothers end up giving their children to foster homes. Palm, an 18-year-old I interviewed who spoke on the condition of anonymity, wept as she told me about how she had to give away her 5-month-old son after her boyfriend broke up with her.
Government officials insist they are taking the problem of teen pregnancy seriously. But while Thai bureaucrats remain so detached from reality that they consider it appropriate to tell teenagers to choose soccer instead of sex, there seems little prospect of a sensible solution any time soon.