Illustration: Chen Xia/GT
Earlier this month, a school in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, dropped a sex education textbook from a recommended reading list for second graders in the wake of a controversy about its content, Caixin reported on March 10.
The school withdrew the textbook, one of a series called Cherish Life, after a mother of one of its students complained online that some of the textbook's material about sex was too explicit. "I blush reading it," the mother wrote on her microblog, igniting a debate about sexual education that received media attention.
The coverage has focused on the textbook's straightforward explanations of sex and reproduction, among other worthy topics, but most of the news reports have glossed over what makes the textbook exceptional - it is an educational resource for Chinese elementary school students that addresses the topic of child sexual abuse.
Although the textbook is a rare tool for dealing with this problem, the adults involved with the case in Hangzhou had no trouble casting the book aside when they ran into embarrassment or controversy. That's troubling, because embarrassment and controversy have so often impeded China's progress in confronting this unaddressed issue.
Child sexual abuse is a growing problem in China, though it remains unclear just how prevalent it is. The number of child molestation cases tried in Chinese courts grew from 2013 to 2015, when 6,620 offenders were sentenced in 7,610 cases, according to data from China's Higher People's Court.
Official figures only represent a fraction of the problem, however. The People's Public Security University of China estimated there are seven unreported incidents of sexual abuse for every reported case.
In a 2015 report for the World Health Organization, an academic at China Agricultural University used local studies to estimate that 9.5 percent of Chinese girls and 8 percent of boys had suffered some form of sexual abuse, according to an August 2016 report in The Economist. If those estimates even approach reality, it would put the number of victims in the millions. One might figure that even the possibility that such a monstrous crime is so prevalent would inspire an uproar for greater eduction, at least. But one would be wrong.
Although many people have come out in support of the Cherish Life series, there hasn't been much interest in actually teaching it. Although the series has been published since 2010, its use has been limited to 18 elementary schools in Beijing, where it is taught as part of a program, according to Caixin.
In the wake of the controversy, officials offered no defense of the textbooks. A spokesman for Zhejiang's education department simply pointed out that the series was not part of the province's official curriculum, the South China Morning Post reported on March 7.
Education officials have been reluctant to teach students about sexual abuse, despite the clear need. In a survey of 2,000 students under the age of 14, the advocacy group the Girls' Protection Foundation found that 90 percent had not received any classroom instruction about sexual assault, Caixin reported on March 3.
There is no sexual education program on the prevention of sexual abuse, and many schools refuse to even broach the subject, Sun Xuemei, one of the founders, told the Xinhua News Agency in a May 2016 report.
The Girls' Protection Foundation holds lectures, runs campaigns and conducts research to protect children from violence, but it often runs into resistance from officials, said Fei Yunxia, a volunteer who lectures children in Hunan Province.
"It is just hard to get support from schools or education authorities. They think the topic is 'sensitive' or 'unspeakable,' and others do not think sexual abuse deserves special attention," she told Xinhua.
The official discomfort with the subject points to a lack of progress, especially considering the government recognized the problem as far back as 2003, when the ministries of education, public security and justice issued a joint notice to eliminate sexual assault in schools, according to a report in the Women of China English Monthly in June 2015.
If the textbook debate teaches us anything, it's that confronting child sexual assault in China can't start with instructing children, but with educating embarrassed parents, skittish school administrators and indifferent officials that have made the issue such a low priority. Perhaps they need a textbook of their own.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.