A Troubling Taboo: The Absence of Sex Education in Kazakhstan

Assel was 13 years old when her teacher attempted to educate her about sex. Visibly nervous, the teacher showed the class a picture of a naked man and woman from an encyclopedia. The only thing Assel remembers about the lesson was that the teacher was warning the young girls about something dangerous and embarrassing. After school, the girl told her mother about the strange lesson. The next day, a group of mothers marched into the school to demand this “shameless” teacher be fired. 

When Assel was 24 years old she visited the gynecologist. In the hospital, her fellow patients shared their stories. She came to learn that most of them did not know the consequences of sex. Sipping tea with her mother a few weeks later, Assel told her that she would educate her future children about sex so they wouldn’t make the same mistakes she had in life. “We’ll see about that!” was her mother’s curt response. 

Ten years later, Assel had three daughters and became a sex education consultant – a rarity in socially-conservative Kazakhstan, where talking about sex remains taboo for most. There is no sexual education at schools or at home because most parents think it is a shameful topic to discuss with their children.

Almost a third of young people aged 15 to 19 are sexually active in Kazakhstan. The teenage pregnancy rate is 36 cases per thousand girls, which is six times higher than the average in developed countries. According to data from the Center for the Study of Public Opinion on the Reproductive Health of Youth in 2018, the average age for the onset of sexual relations is 16.5 years.  

But the lack of sex education isn’t just leading to a rise in teenage pregnancy, it is also leading to the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV.

According to UNAIDS, Eastern Europe and Central Asia are the only regions in the world where the HIV epidemic continues to grow rapidly, in part due to a lack of safe sex practices, with a 57% annual increase in new HIV infections from 2010 to 2017. In 2018, more than 30 cases of HIV in the first and second stages of the disease among adolescents were detected in Kazakhstan. In 2017 alone, 700 cases of genital infections in adolescents were registered. More than 17% of them had syphilis, while just under half had gonorrhea.  

According to the psychologist and founder of the “Straight Talk” school of sexual literacy Assel Shanazarova, there are no trained specialists in educational institutions, while psychologists have other tasks. Therefore, for at least some kind of sex education, gynaecologists are sent to schools.

“They usually teach girls separately and tell them about the medical side: about periods, how to use personal hygiene products, AIDS, and other infections. Often, specialists sent from the local government talk about the moral side of the issue, as if all responsibility rests with girls,” Shanazarova says.

Girls and their families mostly turn to her long after they have begun having sexual relations. During her three years in practice, only one family turned to her for preventative counseling.

“In our society, there are people who believe that it is necessary to introduce sex education, and people who believe that this is ‘uyat’ (shame in Kazakh)” says Shanazaova. “And now they [the latter group] are the majority.” 

According to her, sex education isn’t just about having discussions about sex, but about displaying a caring attitude toward the body, and building better relationships with it in order to protect one another. 

Bauyrzhan Bayserkin, Director of the Republican Center on the Prevention and Control of AIDS, agrees with this assessment. “For every three young people who started sexual activity at the age of 15, two practically did not know what kind of infections they could get and did not use any means to protect themselves against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections,” she said at a press conference in December 2018.

According to a study on sex education in the school system by researcher Karlygash Kabatova , sex education is not the focus of Kazakhstan’s health and education programs. National health programs claim to promote healthy lifestyles among teenagers. They are not seen as a group at risk of sexual and reproductive problems, although statistics on adolescent pregnancies and childbirth persistently indicate that adolescents are in dire need of sexual education. 

But government agencies have started to tentatively move towards implementing sex education programs in schools. The Ministry of Health introduced a new code on public health obliging parents to vaccinate their children and outlined a child’s right to sex education. But for many members of the public, the code would normalize sex and threaten people’s freedom to choose whether to be vaccinated or not (there was a petition that circulated online against the code that received 32,000 signatures). In response, the ministry removed the article about sex education from the new healthcare code. 

For now, sex education among teenagers and children in Kazakhstan remains still a taboo topic in society and the government seems unwilling to tackle the issue head on. But this reluctance to acknowledge the scale of the problem and provide sex education will only lead to more unwanted pregnancies, abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases. 

Asel Shabdanova is a journalist based in Almaty, Kazakhstan.