Call for refugee sex education

WHEN Francine* arrived in Australia, she had little English, no education and six brothers and sisters she was expected to care for.

A childhood marred by civil war was followed by three years in a refugee camp.

She had lived in three different nations and learnt three different languages before arriving in Australia in her early teens.

Sex education was far down the list of priorities when Francine started going to school and while she understood the basics she, like many other teenage girls, had trouble negotiating use of contraceptives with her boyfriend.

Just after finishing year12, Francine was pregnant.

Victoria University community health lecturer Mimmie Ngum Chi Watts said Francine's story was one of many.

National research records elevated rates of teen pregnancy among migrant groups and Dr Ngum Chi Watts said there was plenty that could be done to help support and empower young women who are often unable to discuss sexual health with their family.

The Department of Education last year released a strategy aimed at "acknowledging culturally sensitive information, developing an inclusive approach and providing additional, differentiated information where relevant".

Deputy secretary of Education Liz Banks said schools were given a list of relevant providers able to teach culturally diverse students health and well-being classes - as well, families were offered interpreters to explain what was being taught and were given the option to withdraw their child from these classes.

Francine said the system was helpful, but Dr Ngum Chi Watts suggested a different model.

"Sex education at schools is not working - it needs to look at gender imbalance and social positioning of the girls," she said.

"It's about empowerment - you can give people all the knowledge, but they have to be empowered to use it.

"Girls [in some cultures] are taught to be soft and submissive, so if their boyfriend says `we cannot use contraception' that's what happens.

"They must learn to negotiate condom use."

Dr Ngum Chi Watts spent 3 1/2 years interviewing teen mothers and researching teen pregnancy and contraceptive use among African-Australian communities.

She said the delivery of lessons needed to be reworked to actively involve the students' families, a statement backed by other researchers.

"For many people, it's really important to follow what the family says but they might not be literate in contraception," she said.

"[In Africa] your paternal auntie provides sex education to young girls, but in some situations the paternal and maternal aunts are not in Australia.

"That leaves parents, who traditionally cannot give information, or the students who have migrated alone."

In steps a carer figure - Dr Ngum Chi Watts said since completing her thesis she has been called upon to deliver these lessons herself.

She suggested a relatable female for the role and emphasised the importance of gender segregation when delivering the classes.

"[Sex] is something private for any cultural group - talk to an 80-year-old English woman, she's not going to say anything!" she said.

"It's a sensitive topic but yes, we have to do it."

And as Dr Ngum Chi Watts noted, age is unrelated to parenting ability - Francine is preparing to undertake a certificate in aged care and her happy, healthy daughter is now learning to walk.

"If they had a choice, [many] would delay pregnancy, but are happy they are mothers and are optimistic about the future," Dr Ngum Chi Watts said.

*Name has been changed

Email ebaker@examiner.com.au

Twitter @emilybakertas

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