THERE has been an alarming rise in unwanted pregnancies among international students. Yet some students would rather risk unprotected sex than broach this culturally taboo subject, as Meld reporter Amanda Yap finds out.
Grace (not her real name) was horrified when she found out she was pregnant in her first year of university as an international student. Dressing baggy to hide the bump and eating more to disguise the weight gain was the least of her problems. She was scared and alone because the baby’s father had left her. She was absolutely clueless about what to do next, but was too ashamed to seek support.
Grace’s story is one of many cases Yee Hooi Tee has come across in her role as president of the Melbourne University Overseas Student Service (MUOSS).
“There’s an alarming increase of unwanted pregnancies among students, particularly concentrated in the international student population,” Miss Tee said, after a recent briefing from the Melbourne University Wellbeing Services.
Victoria attracted 190,000 international student enrolments in 2009, and close to 30,000 of these students live or study in the city of Melbourne. A large number of international students in Melbourne are from Asia, and some are as young as 17 years old.
“Students come from countries who don’t extensively elaborate on sex education. Asian parents are known to be unwilling to speak about sexual health with their children,” Miss Tee said.
Young Australians begin sex education – particularly about contraceptive methods – in the early secondary school years, unlike their international student counterparts, Dr Fallon said.
In her seven years as Director of Student Welfare at Trinity College Foundation Studies Program, Dr Fallon said staff had worked hard to educate international students about sexual health, but with little success.
“Whenever we run sexual health talks, nobody turns up. Or at the very least, just a few students do,” she said.
Shy, shy: sex and contraception
For most international students, it’s their first taste of independence and freedom from parental supervision as they leave home to share a house or apartment with friends overseas. It’s also a time when many international students start exploring their sexuality.
Yet some are just too embarrassed or ashamed to talk about contraception with their partners, and would rather take the risk and engage in unprotected sex.
“Yeah some nights I sleep over at his place, other nights he spends over at mine. No way we can do that back home,” a young female student from Malaysia told Meld Magazine on condition of anonymity.
She admits she and her partner regularly forego the use of contraceptives.
“I guess there are some risks. But it’s easier because I just feel so embarrassed whenever I buy condoms, I feel like the cashier or pharmacist is judging me,” she said.
Students after the morning after pill will also find they have to divulge their personal information.
Under Pharmaceutical Society of Australia guidelines, a person who asks for emergency contraception must provide a name and address, and is required to answer a list of questions about sexual activities by pharmacists.
“We can’t just hand it to them when they ask for it. We have a responsibility to also question them about their menstrual cycles and other medications they are taking, to make sure that the contraceptive medications will be effective,” Melbourne University campus pharmacist Koay Han-Nee said.
The morning after: Pregnancy and abortion
The Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health (MCWH) has launched a sexual health promotion project targeted at female international students. But when asked, project officer Carolyn Poljsk said she was unable to provide any statistical data, except that the project was “a response to increasing anecdotal evidence from a number of health and education professionals about the incidence of unplanned pregnancies and terminations in students”.
Dr Fallon said at one of the ISANA conferences, concerns were raised by a female doctor from the University of Melbourne Health Service about the way many female students, particularly from China, were using “multiple annual abortions” as a substitute for contraception as they felt it was a practice condoned in their home country.
Abortion is legal in Victoria.
In 2008 The Abortion Law Reform Act decriminalised termination of pregnancy and set out guidelines for when abortion can take place. Any woman of any age can attend an abortion clinic in Victoria and access abortion until she is 24 weeks pregnant, without any prior counselling.
A large number of abortion services are concentrated in metropolitan Melbourne, and ethical debates aside, students who need to access abortion are eligible for reduced rates, as well as covered by Overseas Student Health Care (OSHC).
Miss Tee said some international students feel they have no choice but to have an abortion.
“Student visas and course loads get affected when international students fall pregnant,” she said.
Others would rather have an abortion than face the intense social stigma of being a single mother especially in the Asian culture, she said.
Getting help: care and support
While some affected students choose to suffer alone, students who have opened up to people have found it beneficial.
In Grace’s case, she eventually told her friends and parents, and was surprised by how supportive they were. She chose to keep the baby, gave birth in her home country, and returned to Melbourne to continue her studies while her parents helped care for her child.
Both Miss Tee and Dr Fallon say it is important for international students to seek proper sexual health information to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STI’s), and to go to the University of Melbourne Health Service – where female doctors can be requested for – if help is needed.
“A doctor will help you with your options, and maintain confidentiality – from your parents and the university,” Dr Fallon said.
Students seeking support for pregnancy-related issues should call and make an appointment with the University of Melbourne Health Service. The service is also open to non-Melbourne University students.