AS a little girl, Azlinda Azman would follow her grandfather on his rounds to villages in Ipoh and Klang, helping poor folk who depended on the Government for assistance.
In times of floods or other natural disasters, Grandpa would be among the first out there, helping victims to get shelter in relief centres, food and medical aid.
Azlinda's grandfather was a welfare officer whose compassion toward the less fortunate left an indelible mark on her life. Furthermore, he encouraged her to do social work.
“He always told me that I should do social work, particularly with children,” says Azlinda. Back then there were no social workers specially trained to help children and adolescents.
It was these early impressions and the advice of her grandfather that inspired Azlinda to make a career out of social work.
“Many people don’t understand social work; even my parents didn’t understand and when I told them I was going to do this, they said: 'What? Social work?' “ she says.
Nevertheless, the former Peel Road Convent student entered Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and did a degree in social science, majoring in social work with a minor in political science.
It was in USM that she got involved in working with the elderly, abused children and the Women’s Crisis Centre for battered women.
Azlinda graduated in 1992 and for a while worked as an executive at Perbadanan Nasional Bhd before quitting to go back to USM to teach and do social work.
In 1996, she did her Masters in Social Work, specialising in adolescence, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, before returning to USM to continue lecturing.
Azlinda is now in her third year at New York University (NYU) doing her doctorate in Clinical Social Work under a USM-Fullbright scholarship.
She says her focus is on working with adolescents, which she described as “dynamic”.
“I could have gone to work with any age group as, when I was doing my bachelors degree at USM, I worked with people of all ages, from adolescents to battered women and the elderly; but I felt that those between the ages of 13 and 19 make up the future generation of the country.”
She adds that those in this category face a lot of pressure, what with the proliferation of entertainment and shopping centres as the country progresses and society becomes more permissive.
Says Azlinda: “I’m interested in looking at adolescent sexuality in Malaysia because we see an increase in sexual activity among the Malaysian adolescent population. This can be related to a number of phenomena like lepak, bohsia and 'sugar daddy'.
“In Malaysia, it is still taboo to talk openly about sexual activity and sexual relations, but adolescents need to know about these issues because they are moving more towards Western culture. This affects all Malaysians, from teenagers in well-educated families to those from the lower income group.
“And now with Internet access, teenagers are exposed to all kinds of information and activities, and chances of them getting engaged in sexual activity are higher.”
She says a lot of attention has been given to this issue by NGOs and the Government, through the National Population and Family Development Board, especially in view of the risks involved in contacting and spreading AIDS.
The board carried out a two-year study (1994-1996) on adolescents to assess their behaviour towards sexuality. Since then no major study has been done and there has been a lot of changes in the last decade.
“There are so many changes that we have to focus on; and even the head of the Malaysian AIDS Foundation, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, has said that we do not want Malaysia to be a country with a huge young population with HIV.”
Towards this end, the Government has created Rakan Muda and other programmes to ensure that teenagers are involved in wholesome activities, Azlinda adds.
She says the question of how to curb undesirable activities among adolescents still remains.
“Children these days are more individualistic and materialistic. That’s where the phenomenon of ‘sugar daddy’ comes in, the pleasure of having adult males sponsor them.”
Azlinda, the daughter of a police officer, says the Government has been talking about the importance of sex education but it is not in the school curriculum. The only time they learn about the subject is during religious or moral classes, but that too is very limited.
“People who are for it (sex education) say it is good for children to learn about it, while those who oppose it say it will encourage teenagers, giving them the message that it is okay to engage in sexual activity as long as you take certain precautions.
“This debate has been going on in every part of the world, but in Malaysia it is hard to adopt (sex education) because of the cultural norms and customs.”
Azlinda is writing a thesis, entitled: A Survey of Adolescent Knowledge, Attitude and Behaviour Regarding Sexuality in Malaysia.
It will relate to adolescents' source of knowledge in terms of sexuality, their attitude towards sexuality and their current behaviour. It will also focus on their opinion of sex education, and whether they have enough information on sex or sex education in schools.
Azlinda will be back in Malaysia later in the year to collect data and material for her thesis which will centre around school students. She hopes the Education Ministry will support her project.
Azlinda believes that most Malaysian adolescents learn about sexuality through the Internet or their peers.
“I hope my thesis will provide the Government with the relevant data to see whether we need to develop a sex education programme as a primary prevention programme for adolescent sex,” she adds.
Azlinda hopes to return to the country as a professional social worker and to train Malaysians interested in social work.
She adds: “In Malaysia, we do not have professional social workers, unlike the United States where it is a profession and there are certified social workers who are degree holders. In the US there is also a professional body, the National Association of Social Workers, representing all trained social workers. In Malaysia, there are many people doing social work on a voluntary basis and not as a profession.”
She said in time to come the country will need more social workers to meet the needs of people in every age group.