Engineering students head to rural school to teach sex education

Some Chinese university students arrived at nightmare "internships" this summer, but others beat their own track, finding fulfillment and satisfaction in helping others.

There were horror stories this year about Chinese university students signing up to dodgy internships which forced them into slave labor that had nothing to do with their majors and cramped them into tiny, stuffy dorms without enough food or fresh air, like the 700 students from Shenyang Urban Construction College.

What you hear less about is students who organized their own internships and who quite literally might be saving lives.

Zhou Huaxiang, a civil engineering major from Shanghai University, is only 19 but he didn’t want to travel or hang out with his friends during the summer break. Instead, he wanted to do something more valuable.

It’s quite ironic, really, that he’s a civil engineering major, because it’s exactly these kinds of students who were some of the victims of scam summer internships this year. 

Even though these arrangements were made by their universities and offered points toward their degrees, the work they ended up doing had nothing to do with their majors – often it was doing arduous assembly line work – and their living conditions were horrible, to say the least.

In the end the government had to intervene, ordering that the students be released at once. What a farce!

But Zhou wanted to beat his own path this summer and went about setting up his own internship, including gaining support from his university and getting together a team to help.

He has known for a while that sex education was lacking in China, especially in rural areas. He also knows that safe sex education can literally be a life saver and can mean that young people have the knowledge and awareness not only to look after and better understand themselves and their bodies, but also to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted attention.

Engineering students head to rural school to teach sex education
Ti Gong

Students at Fuzhai Middle School in Zhumadian, Henan Province, listen intently during Zhou Huaxiang's sex education class.

Engineering students head to rural school to teach sex education
Andy Boreham / SHINE

Zhou Huaxiang

He and a group of fellow students therefore decided to head to some rural schools to teach kids what they might not otherwise learn.

“We needed to first get support from the sex education social organization,” he said. “Then we were able to obtain support from our university, including insurance and recommendation letters, which helped us show the schools that we could teach what we said we could teach."

Zhou said that sex education usually meant that kids were likely to delay sexual activity, make them more accountable and help their physical and mental health.

“A lack of awareness can lead to sexually transmitted diseases, accidental pregnancies, abortions and anxiety,” he said. 

So a group of four students from Shanghai University, including Zhou, got on a slow, overnight train at the beginning of the summer break and headed down to Hunan and Henan provinces, where they eventually held classes for about 1,200 students at six different schools.

They mainly taught in middle schools for children between 9-14 years of age. Classes covered understanding sexuality, reproductive systems, adolescence, contraception, abortion, illnesses, sexual behavior, sexual violence, love and marriage.

“The lack of sex education in China for teenagers was critical,” he said. “China has more than 10 million abortions every year, more than 50 percent of which are unmarried young women. The average rate of new HIV infections among young people has increased by 35 percent in the past five years. On top of that, more and more cases of child sex abuse come up in the news lately.”

It really does sound like a pressing issue, and I’m glad to hear that some people, especially those who are still so young, are willing to give up their summer breaks to help others.

“I just wanted to do something meaningful and make my holiday more colorful,” Zhou said. 

“And I couldn’t have gone traveling even if I wanted to,” he added, laughing. “My dad would definitely refuse to give me the money!”

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