Sex and the TeenAider
Here's the good news - Hong Kong's HIV infection rate is relatively low compared with those in other parts of the world.
But teenagers are still being infected through sexual contact, and they needn't be if they were better informed and had someone to talk to, says Aids Concern, a local charity.
Youth at risk (young people who drift around or gather at public places) have their first sexual experience at an average age of 14.4 years - an unwelcome statistic for parents, says Neda Ng Hei-tung, programme manager for Aids Concern. The finding is based on a 2008 survey of 1,200 young people at risk by the Council of Social Service.
Just 20.8 per cent of those polled used a condom on their first sexual encounter.
Frontline staff at Aids Concern find that while youngsters have some knowledge about how HIV is transmitted, they mistakenly believe it mainly affects sex workers, so more education is needed.
That's why the group has collaborated with St John's Counselling Service to recruit and train teenagers at Li Po Chun United World College in Ma On Shan to act as TeenAiders - agents on a mission to raise consciousness among their schoolmates - as part of activities to mark World Aids Day on Thursday.
The students learn how to provide a relaxed forum where they can have one-on-one or group chats with fellow students to raise awareness about safe sex.
Among the events is a Sex Education Change-of-Pace Day, an eight-hour programme of activities for first-year students during which groups on campus highlight topics such as the importance of wearing a condom and to debunk myths about HIV and vaccinations against sexually transmitted diseases.
'It's quite comprehensive and an intense day,' says Carol Iglesias, a student from Spain at Li Po Chun.
'We look at issues of health and HIV, but also our cultural backgrounds and how sex is regarded in our home countries.'
Unfortunately, the track record of Hong Kong schools on sex education varies widely, Ng says.
'Some schools are as good as Li Po Chun, but most just teach it in assembly - often in a climate of fear,' she says.
Most simply hold talks advocating abstinence as a way to prevent Aids, rather than promote sexual health, Ng says.
But while parents and teachers prefer youngsters to be concentrating on their studies and not their sex drive, the reality is that they will be sexually curious.
'Teachers often feel as if their authority is threatened when they are trying to teach [sexual health in class],' Ng says. 'It's difficult for them; they also probably didn't have sex education at school. We think a better approach would be to have small groups for in-depth discussions, which would give the students more room for reflection.'
Jackie Simpson, an experienced school counsellor, agrees. At First Aid Plus, she provides a course called Changes for primary school pupils, predominantly at international schools, where they are taught to prepare themselves for the physical and psychological changes that they undergo from the age of nine or 10.
'They learn that, but then there's this yawning gulf at secondary school, where they should be taught proper sex education,' Simpson says.
'Secondary school students learn, for instance, about drugs, smoking and personal health. But those topics are much more clear-cut. With sex education, it's a lot more involved. It's a taboo subject in many Hong Kong homes, and the teachers aren't specifically trained to teach it. It is usually taught by science teachers and limited to the anatomical and physiological aspects.'
So youngsters need to be able to turn to a person they can trust to learn from, Simpson says.
'It needs to be in confidence. Teenagers aren't going to put their hands up and ask questions in class and risk humiliation from their friends. Schools need to have a system where children can put their anonymous typewritten questions in a box, and then they can have an informal, circle discussion.
'Whether they like it or not, parents have to face the facts. Some teenagers are having sex at 14 or 15.'
Despite a plethora of information on the internet, Aids Concern warns that children will pick up incorrect 'facts' if they aren't given guidance.
'There are a lot of myths that go around chat-room forums,' Ng says.
Aids Concern sometimes gets flak for distributing condoms along with educational leaflets, with critics complaining that it encourages sexual promiscuity among teenagers.
But the group's acting chief executive, Mandy Cheung Hiu-wah, argues that handing out a condom will protect youngsters who are going to have sex anyway; it will not suddenly inspire others to have sex.
In any case, campaigners argue sex education should be well-rounded, so students are taught that sex is a loving, pleasurable experience - in the right circumstances. It shouldn't be just about fear and deadly diseases.
Queeny Van Der Spek, a student at Li Po Chun College, concurs.
'I had a lot of sex education when I was young. I think it is really important,' says the 17-year-old from the Netherlands. 'My mother really wanted me to know about it and feel comfortable. It is so important to protect people.'
Queeny and other TeenAiders will be conducting sex education workshops for pupils from two local schools aboard a junk, the Aqua Luna, which Aids Concern has commandeered for World Aids Day.
Setting off from Tsim Sha Tsui pier throughout the day, the junk will take members of the public on short cruises around Victoria Harbour, during which they can learn more about HIV/Aids from exhibitions and talks.
For more details, call Aids Concern: 2898 4411.