Dark side of the room

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 November, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 November, 2006, 12:00am

IT'S A BALMY Saturday night in Tsim Sha Tsui and a crowd of young ravers is milling around outside a well-known nightclub. Inside the venue, several storeys up, thumping music fills the spaceship-like dance floor and bar area.

It's an unusual setting for a table laden with information leaflets and blood-pressure gauges. But the set-up serves as a booth for the Play Safe Project, an initiative by the Caritas social agency to provide support and guidance for young people frequenting the city's clubs, especially troubled teenagers who might be drawn into a dangerous whirl of sex and drugs.

Operating like a mobile sex-education unit, the table is typically set up at midnight by two social workers and a young volunteer who man it until 5.30am. There, young clubbers can sit down for a quick health check - and a chat with one of the team.

On a typical night, up to 80 people will drop by to talk, says Sparkle Yu Kai-ming, a social worker who has been involved in the project for the past three years.

Outreach units set up in clubbing areas in Mong Kok regularly see teenagers as young as 13 wandering the streets late at night. Often they're already sexually active, he says.

'These kids come from broken homes,' Yu says. 'They drop out of school early, sleep all day and go to discos at night. They've never received adequate sex education and, as a result, don't know how to protect themselves from having to deal with things like STDs [sexually transmitted disease] and abortion.'

That's why Caritas launched the project in 2001. 'Our aim is to try to get young people to realise the dangers of living at such a fast pace, particularly when it comes to sex,' says project co-ordinator Chu Fung. 'They're at risk if they engage in sex at a young age, with or without protection, possibly with multiple partners.'

A lot of sex education is carried out by teachers who were never properly trained, says Yu. 'They don't know how to communicate effectively, nor can they share relevant experiences with the students,' he says.

The project's young social workers can better connect with young clubbers and are often able to present facts in a way that they can relate to, Yu says.

'It's not as intimidating when advice comes from someone who has been down that road,' he says.

About 50 young people have been trained under Caritas' peer-education programme since it began. Drawn from varied backgrounds, some joined after hearing about it through friends and others were invited.

Then there are those such as 23-year-old JoJo Hui Man-ying, who have experienced the risky lifestyle. Like many of their target group, Hui was a club regular from her early teens. She began going to clubs at 14 and eventually fell into a drug-taking lifestyle.

But as she got older, Hui began to realise the harm she was doing to herself. The decision to quit came purely from within, so she decided to turn her life around. Hui quit drugs, cleaned up her act and has now signed up to help others make informed decisions.

One of a batch of 10 who recently completed the eight-week training for peer educators, she's now back in familiar territory at the club - only this time she's not there to party. Hui says returning to nightclubs felt strange at first. 'I don't like crowds as much now, but the purpose of going clubbing now is different,' she says.

Besides visiting various venues, Caritas also sends social workers and peer educators to schools at least once a week. Yu says the group approaches school principals about sending a team in and many encourage them to give talks.

'We feel that our approach to sex education is more effective because it covers all aspects of sexual development,' he says. 'We're not embarrassed by the subject, and having peer educators on hand to share their experiences puts the students at ease.'

A newly recruited peer educator, who prefers to give her name only as Yumi, used to live in a hostel for girls whose families can't take care of them. The 19-year-old says sex education wasn't taken seriously when she was growing up, and schools should rethink their approach.

'Students need to be prepared,' says Yumi. 'It's not enough to show them a diagram. There needs to be a focus on the emotional aspects of dealing with sex too.'

An ostrich-like attitude isn't helpful, says the chief executive of Aids Concern, Loretta Wong Wai-kwan. She says that some schools ask the group not to mention the use of condoms in their talks.

'Some teachers may be uncomfortable with being approached by curious students wanting to know more about condom use, and they feel unable to handle so many questions,' Wong says.

'The problem is, sex education isn't compulsory in the curriculum. The Education and Manpower Bureau has supplied schools with a comprehensive set of guidelines. But they aren't exactly monitoring its implementation.'

There's also a tendency for school programmes to focus on the act of intercourse, instead of taking into account other aspects such as responsible relationships, communication and gender equality, social workers say. The bureau calls for just 20 hours per year to be allocated on the subject each year, and even then, implementation is at the discretion of schools.

'There's nothing in place to enforce and guarantee the teaching of sex education in schools, so we're left with a problem,' Wong says.

Parents can be an obstacle to teaching, too, social workers say.

'[Public] attitudes towards sex need to change,' Yu says. 'Sometimes the parents don't want their children to be taught about sex. Perhaps they think this will encourage them to have it [sex].

'What they don't realise is how important this kind of education is. It's to be armed with proper knowledge of how to be safe and happy.'