I am never a big believer that morality is the one and only answer to society’s problems. Perhaps this comes from my background as a medical professional, or scientist, or maybe I’m just a skeptic.
Let me tell you three stories I encountered during my work as a doctor in a remote area in North Sulawesi.
The first one is about “Melati” (not her real name), a 21-year-old woman who was admitted to our emergency room with a big cut on her thumb, a head concussion and while in a state of hysteria. Her drunk husband had swung a machete at her during an argument. She was pregnant with her third child.
Melati was a classic story. Dropped out of school, she got married because of unwanted pregnancy. Her husband worked as a daily laborer “buruh serabutan”, while she stayed at home. This wasn’t the first assault. There had been others, but their extended family decided to let it go. Some people who noticed had told her to get a divorce, but Melati and her family were still living with her parents, who didn’t have that much money themselves. She just didn’t have choice.
My second story comes from a couple of dropped out junior high school students. The girl, an 8th grader, and the boy, who was in 9th grade, were pulled out of school by their own parents, again, because of a pregnancy. This couple was so young to get pregnant and here in this corner of the world, I never would have expected it.
I asked my friend, a part-time teacher at the school who told me their story: So what the hell did they do now? Did they get married? No. Did they work? No. Did they live together? No. So what did they do?
“Well,” said my friend, “just as they are, I guess. Living.”
My third story is about another girl, let’s call her “Bunga”, an 11th grader. She came to me after missing her periods two months in a row. I asked her a few questions. Did she have sex? Yes. Did they use protection? No. Did he ejaculate inside or outside? Inside.
I blinked in astonishment as I heard her responses. Seriously, this girl did not know that letting a man ejaculate inside you can make you pregnant? I used to think that everyone at least knew that. I was wrong, apparently. On further asking, I found that she never thought of using condoms, because, well, she only did it with that one guy, how could she get sick? She asked if she could just abort it, because she still wanted to go to school, and was afraid that the schools would expel pregnant girls. And, where should she get her prenatal examinations? Going to the Puskesmas (public health clinic)? People would talk. Going to the senior midwife? Her husband is a relative of hers; they would judge.
Some days later, Bunga came again. She was indeed pregnant. We talked again. That was how I knew about the man. He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, take any responsibilities, because he was married already. A married guy who happily dated a high schooler and was stupid enough to make her pregnant.
I can retell this story now without being insanely angry anymore, but when I heard them for the first time, it was hard for me not to swear in anger. Or to vow a personal rebellion against all the system that our society believes so firmly in. This is crazy! These youngsters have to bear horrible consequences, from the deeds they didn’t fully understand.
Upon interviewing Bunga, I realized one scary thing: these kids certainly know how to have sex, but they don’t know the slightest thing about it. It is alarming and it explains the incredibly high rate of teen pregnancy here, despite the fact that you can find a church every couple of blocks.
A couple of weeks after Bunga’s visit, I met her aunt. She told me that she was tired of her. She didn’t want anything to do with her anymore, because Bunga was “uncontrollable”, “too stubborn to listen to what’s good for her”, and “always running around with boys anyway”. She didn’t mention the married-slash-idiot guy who impregnated Bunga.
And my dear friend, the junior high teacher, once told me about his sexual adventures since university. I told him to get some condoms, and would he please have himself medically tested? He said he didn’t like condoms. And he never, ever felt sick. After that, every time I try to raise that topic again, he immediately goes into denial mode.
My experience giving reproductive health educations here hasn’t been a major success. At one junior high schools, the teachers would attend in the beginning, but they quickly yawned and left the room after a while. In a meeting for “kader kesehatan desa” or village’s health cadres, one lady who sat on the front row kept asking, could you got HIV from sharing plates? Even after I repeated an explanation for “nope, you certainly couldn’t” again and again, the lady still seemed unsure. And, maybe, disgusted.
So who should we blame here? The naughty teenagers with their immoral behaviors? Or the frustrating ignorance of the society at large?
This is not some storybook tales. This is reality. In reality – whether you like it or not – people won’t stop having sex, just because you told them that they are going to hell. The writer of this piece told us that her respondents – city kids – were afraid to ask the adults for information about sex. They couldn’t bear being judged. If even they found it hard to get information about sex, what chance do the kids where I live here have – with little access to the Internet, parents who talk in a hush-hush voice about an itch on their genitals, midwives who provide government-distributed condoms only for married couples, teachers who know nothing themselves?
I don’t think morality is useless. For me, morality should compliment realistic work. This is not a utopian world. In real life, shit happens. A lot.
Please wake up. Don’t be naïve. Don’t be ignorant. Don’t resort to the denial mode. And please, please, DO something about this.
Putri Widi Saraswati is a feminism and writing enthusiast. She’s not a big fan of the way people impose their concept of morality on others, but, sadly, she’s a doctor – the one profession morality cannot let go.