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Sexual health of young immigrants threatened by language barrier, study says

Blake Spence and Britany Link (right) Program Coordinators and Educators with 'WiseGuys" lead a class with Grade 9 male students in Calgary, Alberta. The program explores sexual health and sexuality related topics with a trained male sexual health educator.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Language barriers may be putting the sexual health of some new Canadian teens at risk, says a study that suggests sex education must be tailored to the needs of immigrant adolescents.

The study by the University of British Columbia School of Nursing involved 4,500 East Asian students in Grades 7 to 12.

It found most were not sexually active for cultural reasons, but of the 12 per cent who were having sex, one in four used alcohol or drugs before, while nearly half of girls did not use a condom.

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Researcher Yuko Homma said about half the study group of Chinese, Korean and Japanese adolescents were new to Canada and spoke a language other than English at home.

She said the teens' parents likely would not have had any formal sexual health education because some cultures avoid such topics.

"Many of them may feel uncomfortable talking about sex with their children, so I think it would be great to have sexual health education and resources for both teens and their families," Ms. Homma said.

She said the teens may be missing key information in sexual health classes because of language barriers and youth clinics or community programs may need to fill in the gap to prevent high-risk sexual behaviour.

Ms. Homma said community programs for teens and parents in their own languages need to address the issue because immigrant adolescents tend to be more sexually active in Canada as they adapt to Western norms.

"We know they are a growing number of minority groups, particularly in British Columbia and also in Canada, and maybe their health would impact general Canadian health."

The study, which was published recently in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, included data from a 2008 survey conducted in schools through the McCreary Centre Society in collaboration with the B.C. government and the public health system.

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Queenie Choo, chief executive officer of SUCCESS, a social services agency catering to people in the Chinese community, said parents may not wish to talk about sex with their children for fear of promoting pre-marital relations.

"It's not polite, it's not respectful, it's not considered decent," said Ms. Choo, who was born in Hong Kong and didn't have any sex education at home.

"I hardly heard any parents talking about sex in my era. But I think there's more and more discussion about that, especially safe sex."

She said SUCCESS might consider partnering with high schools to provide sex education for Chinese teens in their own language, but the organization has no current plans for any such program.

However, she said it is important for parents in East Asian communities to understand that adolescents are exposed to more sexualized images in Canada, and that educating them about safe sex is important to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

The study did not include adolescents in English as a second language programs or those who do not attend public schools.

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