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Sex is a taboo topic in Armenia, and as such, many children turn to the internet for answers about this and other intimate topics. While schools have introduced basic lessons on living a ‘healthy lifestyle’ that touch on the topic, most experts agree they are not fit for purpose.
‘We went on a camping trip at the age of 12. We slept in a very small tent; all of us — girls and boys — slept mixed together. In the morning, my stomach began to hurt, the pain grew and I started to cry. When my classmates learned I was in pain, they made fun of me, saying I had got pregnant overnight from my classmate sleeping next to me’, 18-year-old Lilit (not her real name), recalls.
‘I know now it was a childish innocent joke, but on that day, I believed that if a girl and boy lay alongside each other, the girl could get pregnant.’
Talking about sex is a taboo in Armenia. According to Lilit, it has always seemed inappropriate to talk about, even at home with her mother.
When Lilit got home to Artik, a town in the north-western Shirak Province, she began to search for information about pregnancy online.
‘I was so glad when I realised that a girl couldn’t get pregnant just by lying side by side with a boy. But then I began to wonder if I was raped — all because I had caught a cold and had a stomach ache.’
‘I found a lot of rubbish [online]’, says Lilit, ‘and then I understood what stupid articles I was reading’.
Lilit’s younger sister is 13 years old. Unlike when Lilit was her age, she is better informed.
‘My parents don’t talk about this topic with my sister either’, Lilit says. ‘To tell the truth, I also felt embarrassed to. Then I noticed that just like me, she was reading some news on the web and realised that I should not let her go down the wrong path like me.’
‘Step by step I began to speak about it with her and now we can talk about sex with each other very freely’, says Lilit.
Lilit is currently living and studying in Yerevan to become a psychologist. She says whenever she is told by her lecturer to make a study on a sexual topic, she finds it a complicated task.
Lilit says she turns to special groups on Facebook that are only for women. ‘There was a case when I tried to make an inquiry about an intimate theme, the question was the following: what they know about sex. The reaction was terrible. When someone dared to talk openly on the subject, other users hurried to shut her up, asking her how she was not ashamed of writing such things, or simply labelling her immoral’, says Lilit.
The internet: a double edged sword
Doctor Vahe Asryan, a clinical sexologist at the Hormone medical centre in Yerevan, says that sexual education is very much neglected in Armenia.
‘With age, children seek to understand their bodies, they become mature and many questions accumulate. At home, they are ashamed to talk to their parents and begin to target the virtual domain to find the answers to all their questions’, Asryan tells OC Media.
Asryan says that people frequently call or write to find out the different ways a woman can fall pregnant. ‘For example, one says that she kissed a man and supposed she was pregnant from a kiss. Another is worried about whether it’s possible to get pregnant just by touching through clothes.’
The reason for all this, Asryan says, is that ‘people do not get sexual education earlier, at a proper age’, adding that even once children grow up and start their own family, they still continue to seek answers to many questions only online.
Asryan recalls a young couple coming to him arguing. ‘It turned out the wife had read an article online about sex and was telling her husband that their sex life was “wrong”. Her husband insisted that they were not making any “mistakes”. When I talked to them, it turned out the woman had read some bad article on an untrustworthy website and actually the couple had no problem. It also turned out the woman had talked about the topic with her friends, shared the news, and that they had all now come to the conclusion that they were living “wrongly”.’
Asryan says he has seen a positive change in the last five years in that people have started to raise the problem.
‘In this sense, the internet comes to the rescue. People open profiles with fake names on social networks and write to doctors from these pages. In this case, they are not ashamed and speak freely both about sex, basic hygiene, and other issues.’
Asryan notes that some families do educate their children about sex from an early age, even consulting with specialists on how and when to speak with their children about what topic.
‘However, no one teaches anything at the general education level. In schools, we have courses that actually have nothing to do with the sexual education. Nothing is taught there.’
‘My colleagues and I have had schoolchildren visit us who have had some problems at school, some issues arose, and they have asked for help from a teacher who they were relatively close with and were not embarrassed to speak about an intimate topic with. It could be a teacher of physics ot an art teacher — that is, a person helps the child who does not have the professional qualification.’
‘Healthy lifestyle’ classes
According to most experts, the most responsible period for sex education is during puberty — beginning around age 10 until the age of 17, as during this time adolescents go through both physical and psychological changes.
In 2008, the Ministry of Education introduced a ‘healthy lifestyle’ course in secondary schools for year 8–11 students (ages 13–16). Within this subject, children learn about the negative effects of smoking and drug use, HIV/AIDS, puberty, and more. The class included just 14 hours of teaching per year, conducted by physical education teachers.
Anahit Muradyan, chief specialist at the ministry’s Education Department, says the classes are conducted by physical education teachers because the subject is a part of general fitness education. ‘All teachers pass special training every 5 years’, she says.
Muradyan says the classes have been a success. ‘We are studying the adolescents’ behaviour and I can point out that the lessons have yielded results. The students are quite informed and have knowledge about sexually transmitted diseases.’
She says there are problems with the classes about smoking as by year 8, ‘it’s too late for many of them because they already smoke and have their own experiences. In this regard, the issue of including the course in the school system from an earlier age is being discussed.’
A different approach
Sex education is often taught differently in private schools to the ‘healthy lifestyle’ lessons on offer in state schools. At the Anania Shirakatsi Armenian National Lyceum, a special subject called ‘Ethics for Armenian Women/Men’ has been taught for more than 20 years. Generally, the subject is taught separately to boys and girls, but there are joint classes on some themes.
The aim of the subject is to encourage independent decision-making of young people and the formation of their sexual self-consciousness. This course is mostly taught in the 11th grade.
One of the teachers at the lyceum, Irina Khanamiryan, curator at Yerevan State University’s psychology centre, says that the teenage years are the time a person starts to perceive and understand their gender.
‘Sexual education does not at all mean a transfer of knowledge about sexual relations’, she says. Instead, according to her, it teaches an understanding of gender roles, of the opposite sex, and of relationships.
According to Khanamiryan, even adults who have a lot of experience working in education feel constrained and shy when speaking about these topics. She says these are often the adults who use unnecessary shame and disinformation when discussing such topics with children.
‘A teenager always asks himself: “who am I? what is my place in this world? what kind of relationships should I build? how?”, and so on. In the field of education as well as in the family, a teenager should always get support when seeking answers to such questions’, the psychologist states.
Today, in Armenia, experts in the field are unanimous that to properly educate youngsters on such topics, first of all, the awareness of both the teachers and parents needs to raise.