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Taking Down Teenage Taboos: Talking About Sex to Prevent Child Marriage

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Girls' Rights Reproductive Health

Huddled in a circle and deep in discussion, teenagers in northern Thailand are talking openly about the myths of sex, the dangers and risks of early pregnancy, marrying too young and how to put a condom on. They are animated, intrigued and keen to debate and learn about the taboos that are so often filtered within the classroom halls and family homes. 

Among the most curious is Orn, a 16-year-old girl, who is leading the discussions and answering questions other teenagers have been bursting to know but were too scared to ask. Discussion on such topics are rare within families and communities who believe that talking about sex and pregnancy to teenagers is too difficult. 

The Power of Conversation

However, in northern Thailand, these awkward conversations are starting to happen. Through training sessions and regular discussion groups held by Plan International’s Teen Power for Better Life project, adolescent girls, mostly from rural parts of the country, are learning about topics such as conception, contraception, sexual and reproductive health, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

Through these lessons, girls are able to discover the links between early marriage, adolescent pregnancies and gender discrimination. Crucially, the project encourages everyone to take the lead and become inspirational youth leaders of change, like Orn.  

“I am working with other volunteers to share knowledge about sexual reproductive health and rights, focusing on raising awareness on child marriage among other children and youths,” says Orn. “Now I feel more confident and proud of myself, being able to help others.”

Until Orn joined the Teen Power for Better Life project, she believed, like most girls in her community, she was destined for early marriage and motherhood. 

“As girls, we can make our own choices and no one has the right to force us to do anything we do not like. I have learnt more about sexual and reproductive health and rights. I am now aware that social norms influence practices leading to gender inequalities in my community and child marriage.” 

The reason so many girls in her village marry and have children at such a young age often has to do with economics and family pressure to conform to traditionally accepted ways of life. Local officials, particularly in rural areas, are known to turn a blind eye to this harmful practice.

“Every child has a right to dream, to study and to pursue their futures, not to be a wife or a mother at a young age,” says Orn.

The Power of Training

The Teen Power for Better Life programme is beginning to have an impact. In March 2021, youth representatives from the project took part in a network meeting to discuss accessing sexual reproductive health information at the local level. In addition, project representatives, presented their recommendations to government agencies on National Youth Day, 20th September 2021.

The common consensus was that more access to information on sexual and reproductive health was desperately needed. Female youth leaders also worked with a diverse set of stakeholders, from local administrative organisations to community development officers, to codify ideas to improve the rights and quality of life for youths. These efforts are gradually paying off, and some youth groups will receive state funding next year.

“After the training, I realised that if I married early, I might not be able to follow my dream to be a businesswoman. I want to study and obtain a degree, not only be someone’s wife,” says Orn. “Girls in my village give up their lives because the community thinks you are a good person only if you obey your parents. But this causes suffering for many children.”

Today, Orn is continuing her work as a youth leader for Teen Power for Better Life project. She works alongside other volunteers delivering knowledge about sexual reproductive health and early marriage challenges.

“I hope that parents and society know that child marriage is a social problem. It has a negative effect on the life of a child. We need to stop tolerating child marriage, supporting girls instead to complete their schooling and enroll in higher education to pursue their dreams better,” says Orn.

“I want to raise my voice to governments and relevant organisations to invest in interventions to eliminate child, early and forced marriage.”

About the Teen Power for Better Life Project

In response to the ongoing issues of child, early and forced marriage, Plan International Thailand’s multi-pronged Teen Power for Better Life project has been raising awareness about the many perils of child marriage. The project carries out five-day “Under 18: No Marriage and Pregnancy” training courses throughout the country. Recent training in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai attracted around 330 children.

During these sessions girls learn about gender frameworks, gender norms and gender inequality. They also learn about family planning, safely using a condom, and adolescent development. However, the topics that often leave the most lasting impression are the sessions on the physical, material and mental effects of early marriage and pregnancy on girls.