Sexuality education – global and local barriers and opportunities

© Lennart Nilsson

© Lennart Nilsson

Despite the crucial element of sexuality education to increase general public health and ensure actual implementation of human rights for all, it is a tremendously controversial topic in many countries around the world. In many cases, the discussions around sex, sexuality and the education of it, are infected by conventional wisdom, traditional believes and society’s norms. Whether sexuality education should exist at all is an opinion often tainted by internal political agendas, historical bonds between nations and religious dominance in the society.

The rationale for sexuality education is manifold. In some developed countries sexuality education is part of the national curriculum and should thus be integrated in formal schooling. Sweden is a prime example of such country where sexuality education is mandatory, the discourse around sex is widely open in society and access to information, clinics and contraceptives is impeccable. Despite this, teachers colleges most often lack in training their students, and thus the quality of sexuality education in schools are highly varied depending on the individual teacher. As a result, sex and sexuality are still often suppressed in society by taboos and stigmas.

In developing countries, sexuality education is often presented under the umbrella of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), encompassing “negative” topics such as sexually transmitted infections (STI) including HIV as well as unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions. Solutions to alleviate these challenges are also presented, such as information about and access to contraceptives, and family planning as well as discussions about change in normative attitudes. Albeit the focus on sexual rights is somewhat neglected when it relates to love, sexual pleasure and gender equality. Instead focus often remains medical, teaching about the body and reproduction, which is a good start for sure!

The traditional target audiences for sexuality education are youth, in particular girls. However, in a majority of developing countries formal schooling is a luxury for the selected few, therefore it is essential to focus on the strengthening of community outreach by social franchising where making use of civil society organisations and local community leaders is important. International NGOs, funded by governments, roll out SRHR projects where they train peers such as commercial sex workers and orphaned street children to pass on their knowledge to children and youth in non-formal settings. This method is highly valuable and it is critical that these peer educators receive adequate training for their assignment.

Some common misconceptions facing teachers of sexuality education is that such education will increase youth’s promiscuous behaviour before marriage and reduce students’ respect for the teacher by whom they are taught. In the development of these discussions worries are also raised regarding contraceptives as the devil, enabling women to be unfaithful to their husbands without any obvious consequences. The teacher or mentor must therefore be highly trained to counter argue such claims. Another aspect to consider in the engagement of sexuality education is the ethical dilemma of conveying “facts” while taking into account the local customs, believes and traditions of your audience. How is this done without patronising the people you are talking with? As an NGO worker, regional frameworks[1], which underline the necessity of objectivity in sexuality education usually, back one up. They state that curricula should be based on scientific facts with correct information about contraceptive methods; should be inclusive of all audiences and not be discriminatory nor underpin any stereotypes.

By only scraping the surface of sexuality education and the role it plays or should play in formal and non-formal educational settings and societies across the globe, I have left out a lot. Some topics I have merely or not at all touched upon, even though they often provide different angles to and contribute to the larger discourse within the realm of sexuality education and SRHR, e.g. lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) sexual identity; homogeneous, heterogeneous and polyamorous relationships; sexual preferences; sexual abstinence; definition of sex; masturbation; abortion and “menstrual regulation’; adults’ rights vs. youth’s rights; sexual violence, honour and rape; age of marriage; laws; infrastructure as means of accessibility to clinics, contraceptives and maternal health.

Ethical barriers and other challenges for sexuality education are many. But the opportunities are also plenty. Sexuality education will help reduce the number of maternal mortalities and will be crucial to reach the Millennium Development Goal 5 of improving maternal health by 2015. With proper training for educators, with cultural sensibility of international NGOs and with relevantly tailored curricula, sexual education is the right tool to increase public health and allow all people to enjoy their human rights.

Only in the past week we have seen important days for all the people on in our world; Nelson Mandela’s passing (5 December), Human Rights Day (10 December) and The Nobel Prize Award Ceremony & Banquet (10 December). Just a few days before that was the annual World aids day (WAD, 1 December) and Christmas with all it’s warmth and prayers for those in need is just around the corner. During this period it is easy to fall into the almost indulgent mode of angelic thinking, patting oneself on the back for sharing an ill person’s story on Facebook or perhaps even donating a gift to a homeless person. That’s all very good, please do continue giving (I know that ALL of my Facebook friends can afford to give $10 to charity once a year. That’s more than $3,000 per year for a good cause! If everyone actually did it.), but also remember; there are homeless people and rape victims and motherless children who all need your help, all year around.

[1] Regional frameworks such as e.g. Mexico City Declaration on Sex Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (2008) and Maputo Plan of Action (2006)