IN our SEXtember profile, Carene Chong speaks to Kenyan-born safe sex advocate Samuel Muchoki about sexual health knowledge in the international student community.
Three and a half years ago, Samuel Muchoki quit his job and left his family in Kenya to come to Australia and pursue his PhD in sexual health at LaTrobe University.
Following his passion in a foreign land hasn’t been easy for this academic. For three weeks, he lived in backpacker hostels looking for accommodation for his family. He says those were some of the most difficult times he had to endure.
“I didn’t know anybody in Australia and I was feeling very lonely,” he says.
“I had a two year old son and was just settling into married life, so to leave my family back home was very hard.”
Today Samuel has almost completed his PhD and secured himself a full-time job with the Multicultural Health and Support Service (MHSS) in North Richmond.
The centre was set up to assist Australian organisations meet the health and well-being needs of the migrant and refugee communities in Australia, which includes the international student community.
International students are having a lot of issues with unwanted pregnancies and STIs right, left and centre.”
As part of his role, Samuel helped establish the Multicultural Sexual Health Network (MSHN), which works with other organisations to discuss sexual health issues affecting culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities.
So what are organisations like Samuel’s doing to raise awareness about sexual health among international students?
“We know some international students are having sex without much knowledge of protection, so we are taking every possible action to get the message about safe sex across to international students,” he says.
For his PhD, Samuel examined the sexual health practices of men from refugee backgrounds in Australia, how the move from their homeland has affected their sexual activities and how much they know about safe sex.
“The subjects of my research are men from refugee backgrounds who have issues with education, the language barrier and so forth,” he says.
“Also, when they come to Australia, they get this sense of freedom, which leads them to engage in risky sexual activities.”
International students, Samuel says, are facing the same issues.
Two months ago, the MHSS met with a few researchers from Deakin University to discuss the vulnerabilities of international students and made a daunting conclusion.
“International students are having a lot of issues with unwanted pregnancies and STIs right, left and centre,” he says.
On STIs, Samuel adds the majority of international students only know about HIV, but there are other infections that students need to be mindful of.
“There’s gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, herpes. There’s also the BBVs (blood-borne viruses) like hepatitis A and B that they need to be aware of,” he says.
Many Australian organisations are reluctant to discuss sexual topics with CALD communities for fear of offending, but Samuel says that’s just a wide misconception.
“When I was doing my research, I talked to the refugees about their sexual experiences and they opened up to me about it. If you’re willing to take the time to talk to international students about their sexual experiences, they will talk to you about it. So what really is the taboo?
“A lot of people say they don’t know how to reach the CALD communities about sexual health but they’re just not being innovative enough,” he says.
The MHSS has made the international student community a priority, with plans to recruit a community worker focused on promoting sexual health to the international student community.
“But we need more than that,” Samuel says.
“One person can’t do everything. He or she can’t meet the needs of 500,000 students, me included.”
“At the uni level, there needs to be some dedication for promoting sexual health, especially among international students,” he says.
He adds that the government needs to start thinking about international students beyond the economic benefits.
“A third of the students will remain here in Australia after their education to look for work and eventually settle down as permanent residents,” he says.
“So what is your rationale of not having services to promote sexual health right at the start when they arrive in the country?”
At the end of the day, Samuel says some action has been taken by mainstream and key organisations to promote sexual health among international students, which is definitely a good start.
“They are small, but important steps to address the issues at hand,” he says.
But in the meantime, Samuel emphasises there is nothing more important than speaking up if you have any concerns about about your sexual health.
“Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed. We are here to answer your questions and help you.”
The Multicultural Health and Support Service and the Centre for Culture Ethnicity and Health is part of North Richmond Community Health and can be contacted at 9418 9929 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org .