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Photos by © Rosa Panggabean
“Growing up I thought masturbation was a sin. I was educated to discipline my body against having the desire to have sex or experience sexual fantasies. My parents told me they would speak to me about sex the night before my wedding night.”
This is Lina, a 26-year-old Indonesian who was born and raised in East Java. She’s also a Christian, unlike 87% of the population who are Muslim. However, like the majority of young people in Indonesia, the fears and beliefs she held regarding her sexuality, unfortunately, are not unique. This is a story about a young girl who wasn’t satisfied with the accepted conservative cultural norms, who was determined to find her own truth and who is helping other young Indonesians find theirs along the way.
When Lina heard there was an opportunity to conduct research on how gender norms influence adolescents’ sexual wellbeing and the impact of sexuality education (as part of the Global Early Adolescence Study), she jumped at the possibility. It was something she had always been interested in, yet deeply conflicted about. As part of her new role, she received training on how to talk to adolescents about sensitive issues in an effort to get them to share their own experiences and values regarding sex. Something that had never been done in Indonesia before.
“I now understand more about my rights in relation to sexuality.”
Growing up, the topic of sex was never discussed. Like many parents in Indonesia, Lina’s felt uncomfortable and that it wasn’t their place to address the topic with their children. They were also concerned and skeptical of Lina’s new job researching the topic. However, after Lina began sharing what she learned with her parents, they started to open up and the familiar awkward feelings began to fade away.
Every Sunday without fail, Lina goes to Church. It feels good and natural to her, as that’s what she’s always done. It’s where she comes from and what she believes in. Although, now she sees familiar religious values in a different light: ”It’s all about societal context”, she says.
“I used to think that people who had unwanted pregnancy were wrong, because that’s how I was raised back home. Through this process, I have become someone who could listen and offer support.”
Sitting face to face with adolescents and discussing perceptions and ingrained beliefs about their sexuality, is mainly a process of self-reflection, Lina shares. After all, she was just there herself, nervous and uncomfortable about her body, its rapid changes and her bursting sexual feelings. The difference is that Lina wasn’t empowered with information or reassured with support from her school or parents. It was taboo, it was forbidden.
It wasn’t just young people that Lina needed to speak to, it was teachers, NGOs and government institutions. The results of the research she had been a part of were becoming clear: girls and boys in Indonesia have little knowledge about their sexuality, they feel insecure about their bodies. This leads to anxiety and depression and puts them at risk as they become adults. “These findings needed to be communicated!”, Lina stressed.
The process of beginning to explore and understand your body isn’t easy for young people in a society where sexuality is heavily stigmatised. However, through sexuality education and Lina’s discussions these adolescents begin to open up and feel more comfortable. “It’s working!”, Lina discovers.
Alongside her research, Lina has started to follow several Instagram accounts with gender and sexuality content. Social media helps her to understand the gender and sexuality issues that adolescents experience.
In Indonesia, sexuality education has always been avoided in the belief that it would lead to more promiscuous behaviour. For Lina, and as a young researcher, trying to convince her country that sexuality education should be a core part of every school’s curriculum was intimidating, to say the least. She knows that stigma and ingrained cultural barriers don’t change overnight. However through this experience, she also knows now that the very happiness and prosperity of Indonesia depends upon it – and she is determined to continue to play a part in achieving it.
Lina’s story is part of Explore4Action, a joint initiative of Rutgers (Netherlands and Indonesia), the Centre for Reproductive Health of Gadjah Mada University Yogyakarta (Indonesia), local branches of the Indonesian Family Planning Association (PKBI), Johns Hopkins University (USA) and Karolinska Institutet (Sweden), with generous support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Explore4Action includes three research tracks, as well as an advocacy track to make the case for better health education and services for adolescents and young people across Indonesia. More information about the programme can be found here.
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