“But my mother said that once I started menstruating, I couldn’t even touch a man, otherwise I would become pregnant,” she says.“I was afraid of that, so I stayed away.” She busted that myth only about three years ago, when she turned 18 years old and decided to study health so she could become a midwife for the government.In Thailand, a Buddhist-majority country known for its relative openness about sexuality and its flourishing prostitution industry, activists say teachers are still too embarrassed to frankly discuss sexual health with their students.
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“It is something both sides are shy to talk about, and it is our culture.” Her friend Phuu Pwint Aung, a 22-year-old from Mon State, has a boyfriend but says she does not know how to use a condom.
“We have to keep our virginity before getting married,” she says.
The hotline is an initiative of the Myanmar Medical Association, a professional organization of physicians that has also created a separate line for young women, usually between the ages of 15 and 24, who want to talk about issues such as teen pregnancy, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.
Some callers are shy at first, says 26-year-old Zarni Win, who has been moderating the boys’ hotline since July last year and answers about five calls daily.
Public displays of affection are rare, beyond holding hands, and it is common in Rangoon to see couples taking cover behind umbrellas at public parks so they can cuddle in privacy.
“We will never talk about it,” says Phyu Phyu Win, a 22-year-old student in Rangoon, referring to sex.
As Burma opens up to the world after decades of international isolation, as its government works to reform an education system that was long-neglected by the former military regime, and as the public takes advantage of new freedoms of expression, similar debates are under way to determine just how far educators should go in teaching a taboo subject.
‘Not Just About Sex’ As is true in many Southeast Asian countries, women in Burma are traditionally expected to remain virgins until they marry.
Young people are commonly forced to marry against their will if caught having sex, while women with unwanted pregnancies must have the baby or undergo an unsafe illegal abortion.
Another concern is sexual assault and rape, says Htar Htar, a women’s rights activist known in Rangoon for launching a campaign against sexual harassment on city buses.
But despite the chaste expectations, Burma is not a place of innocence.