A volunteer with the Girls Protection Fund teaches students in a rural school in Henan Province how to protect themselves from sexual abuse. (Photo: IC)
A middle school boy, giving hints for a guessing game as part of a classroom activity, struggled for words.
"Its color is the opposite of black, and it appears on the underwear regularly."
His partner in the game, a girl, looked intently at the boy and tried to guess what he was referring to.
"Is it 'semen'?" she asked. "No? Oh its 'vaginal discharge!' 'Vaginal discharge!'"
Her shouted answer was correct, and the team moved on to the next word in the educational game — penis.
This kind of sex education is not normally found in the classrooms of Baiba township, Kangxian county in Northwest China's Gansu Province, a mountainous area about 1,700 kilometers from China's capital Beijing.
"In our township, sex is an embarrassing topic. Most of the students in the school are children of farmers or migrant workers, who do not talk about this subject to their children," Bao Tiantian, a teacher from the No.2 Kangxian Middle School, told the Global Times.
But through sex education games in class, the taboo that's normally associated with words about sexual organs was broken, and the children, aged 13 to 14, felt no shame. Rather, they tried to win the game by guessing as many words as possible.
The middle school is taking part in a trial program that aims to bring sex education to more children in rural areas. Prior to the courses, a group of teachers of different subjects from different schools in the county, including Bao, an English teacher, received three days of training by Niwo (You and Me), a Beijing-based sex education platform launched collectively by several NGOs including the Rural Women Development Foundation Guangdong and Marie Stopes China.
In addition to teachers, more and more college students who volunteer to teach in rural areas during their summer or winter vacations are incorporating sex education sessions into their courses.
Fang Gang, a professor of sexology at Beijing Forestry University, said incorporating sex education into rural education and short-term volunteer teaching programs is a good way to address the lack of sexual education in rural areas. "Self protection against sexual harassment is very important for children in rural areas, especially among left-behind children, and yet currently rural areas lack these teaching resources," he told the Global Times.
No longer taboo
According to a 2017 study conducted by the Girls Protection Fund of the China Foundation of Culture and Arts for Children, among the 378 publicly reported cases of sexual abuse that occurred to minors in 2017, almost two-thirds occurred in cities.
But this doesn't mean children from rural areas suffer from less sexual harassment than urbanites. On the contrary, it suggests underreporting, and shows how rural children have been neglected by the media and society, according to the report. "Children from urban areas receive closer guardianship from family, school and society. The better legal system and more active media environment in the city also makes child abuse cases more widely known," the report said.
This January, the Chinese public was outraged by the story of 12-year-old girl Lele (pseudonym) from Magutian township, Henan Province, who was impregnated by a security officer at her school. It was only after she was found pregnant that she revealed to her mother that she had been suffering sexual assaults from the officer since she was 9. Lele's father is a migrant worker, and her mom is mentally disabled.
Children from rural areas also showed a worrying lack of caution around strangers when enticements were offered, the report said. When asked whether they would accept toys or food from strangers, 97.15 percent of minors from rural areas said they would, as opposed to just 1.66 percent from urban areas.
Although the need for sex education in rural areas is pressing, there are many challenges, and people's ideas about sex is one of them.
Bao herself was skeptical at first. Just before the training course, Bao had an argument with her headmaster. Bao felt the course should be taught in high school, where the students are "more psychologically mature." But the headmaster insisted she teach it to middle school students.
"I was worried that children this young would learn things they shouldn't know at this age, and be taught to do bad things. When I was their age, I knew nothing about sex," Bao, aged 35, said.
The effect of the course, however, was beyond her expectations. "They weren't as innocent and timid as I thought, and some of them were more open to the idea of sex than I am. And because of this, they need more guidance from us," she said.
Xu Wen, a project coordinator at Niwo, said while rural children can appear to be more timid in class in the beginning, they are just as quick and responsive as city children. "As we carry out the classes, we find that children from rural areas and the city have little difference in their curiosity about sex. Compared to children from the city, those from the rural areas are more familiar with scenes of animals mating, and relate that to what's taught in class," she told the Global Times.
Apart from training teachers, more and more college students are joining the program. Last year, 1,096 volunteer teaching teams, mostly college and high-school students, signed up for Niwo's sex education packages, bringing sex education to rural areas in 16 provinces. This year so far, over 500 teams have signed up.
Teachers also learn
For Niwo, equipping college students with knowledge and teaching skills for sex education is a difficult task. In the past, the effect of courses that used presentations to teach sex knowledge to children did not turn out well, and depended a lot on the volunteers who taught them. Many volunteers did not have time to receive systematic training on the subject.
To address this issue, the platform now provides two course packages for children aged between 6 to 12 and 13 to 18 respectively. The packages include several 10-minute cartoon videos and course plans, such as games and discussions, to assist the volunteers in designing and planning their courses.
For teachers in rural areas and college students who grew up with little sex education, participating in the program was also a learning opportunity for themselves.
Wang Meidan, a sophomore majoring in applied psychology at the South China Normal University in Guangdong Province who volunteered to teach sex education in a Guangdong village, said she did not receive any sexual education before college. "We were handed books on physiology in middle school, but I was too shy to read them," she recalled.
But recent incidents, such as the tragic suicide of 26-year-old Lin Yi-han, a Taiwanese writer who suffered from depression for many years after being raped by her teacher, sparked Wang's attention on the topic and prompted her to sign up for the program last year.
"This is a learning process for me as well. By preparing for the classes, I learned a lot of things that I myself didn't know before," she said.
Xu shared another example. A teacher at another school in Gansu said he had never heard of the term "masturbation cup" until a boy in class asked him to introduce the term. It was through other students in class that he learned what it is. "The teacher was touched that students and teachers can share knowledge and explore the topic together," Xu said.
Bao, who is the mother of a 3-year-old child, said she is thankful for the course, because she now knows how to educate her own children about sex.