Cultural norms, taboos and knowledge of sex amongst the youth of Bali

When you live in a country like Sweden, it is easy to forget how great things actually are, but after living in Bali on and off for three years while working with children and youth I have a newfound respect for the Swedish educational system and the open-minded social culture. The public school system in Bali is much different from that in Sweden and leaves much to be desired; the classes are large, the buildings worn down, there are not enough educational materials and most of the teachers have been educated by the same system – with everything that this entails. The situation is made more complex by the fact that many children never even go to school for various different reasons. Outside of school, there are few venues for youths to ask questions and explore adulthood; people live in separated and organized close-knit communities (called “banjar”) even within larger towns and children rarely come in to contact with others outside of this community. Children and teenagers are raised to comply in a culture where one respects their elders, social and cultural codes and never challenges these.

In accordance with the local culture, premarital sex is not accepted and sex in general is not something one should talk about. There is no sex or family planning curriculum in school; high school students get a quick review of the human anatomy during a biology class, and this lesson does not include information on reproduction, contraceptives or sex. When I ask a biology teacher at a local high school, she simply answers that the book she uses does not include such information and shows no interest in continuing to talk about the subject. The consequence is that many children and teenagers do not know how a woman becomes pregnant – or how one can avoid becoming pregnant. Just like in Sweden, children and teenagers do talk to older friends and siblings but since there is a social taboo placed on the subject of sex it is impossible to conclude how much of the informally reproduced information is correct how much is misleading myths.

The access to contraceptives is both socially and institutionally restricted, socially as many youths do not know what alternatives are available and institutionally as the condoms and contraceptive pills which are available at most local pharmacies cannot be sold to just anyone. My local pharmacist explains that you have to be at least 17 years of age to be allowed to purchase condoms and you have to be married in order to be able to purchase contraceptive pills. The semantic of contraceptive pills is also interesting; in Bali contraceptive pills are called “pil keluarga berencana” which can be translated to “family planning pill” which has a very different connotation than the Swedish “prevention pill”. When I ask the pharmacist if he actually inquiries regarding a customer’s age or marital status before selling contraceptives, he answers that youths never come to buy condoms and that no woman would ever purchase contraceptive pills without first discussing it with a doctor – and no doctor would recommend an unmarried woman to go on the pill. There are several different brands in a wide range of prices but several of the contraceptives available are cheap, even when measured by local standards. A month’s worth of contraceptive pills costs approximately 3 Sek (Rp 5 500), and a box of 3 condoms is the same price, but these are primarily used by couples whom are already married. Premarital sex simply is not socially accepted and therefore not something one likes to talk about.

Despite the lack of information, many youths here experience the same emotions and curiosity as youths in Sweden and it is not all that rare that they explore sex in secret. This lack of knowledge does mean that young, unmarried women sometimes become pregnant. Usually this is talked about as if these girls have “only played around a little” with their boyfriend. These young, unmarried women’s fate is then to be decided by her family and banjar, which almost always demands that the girl marries her unborn child’s father – regardless of her age. In Bali one can be married in ones banjar in a manner that is socially acceptable although it is never officially, legally registered and therefore it is impossible to record statistics and official guidelines for appropriate marital ages are futile. When a woman in Bali is married, she is expected to move in with her new husband and his extended family to care for her child and the home, which often means that young women have to leave school and their own social network behind. The father is also sometimes required to leave school, as he has to find work to be able to support his new family. The social taboo on sex creates a situation where youths sometimes are forced to forgo the possibility to shape their own lives and to make conscious choices.

Luckily, change is slowly happening and we are moving towards a more open dialogue here too. Tourism and the many non-profit organizations that work with youths contribute to an increased awareness, but as the subject still is under taboo it is difficult for these organisations to openly discuss sex if they wish to maintain the locals respect. By educating and informing youths about sex and family planning, you grant them the possibility and the right to decide over their own body, sexuality and lives. RealStars efforts to raise the issue of Fair Sex is important for many different reasons and leads the way for an open and honest debate about all aspects of sex, both home in Sweden and abroad.

/ Emelie Svensson, lives in Bali and volunteers for Real Stars remotely.