Why children need comprehensive sexuality education in a changing world
A good education should go beyond the traditional academic focus; it must also support young people to develop the knowledge, skills, and ethical values they need to make conscious and healthy choices about relationships, sex and reproduction.
July 02, 2019 by Stefania Giannini, UNESCO
4 minutes read
Students in a technical education program supported by the World Bank in Antioquia, Colombia.
Students in a technical education program supported by the World Bank in Antioquia, Colombia.
Credit: Charlotte Kesl / World Bank

The world is changing, and changing fast, what with emerging technologies, environmental uncertainty and shifting global demographics. Young people leaving school or university today are facing a very different set of challenges to those experienced by previous generations.                         

A good quality education is paramount. It is indispensable in a world marked by complexity and uncertainty. This includes inclusive and equitable education and lifelong learning opportunities for all, the ambition of Sustainable Development Goal 4. This is a fundamental human right, and one of the most powerful tools for achieving sustainable development.

What a well-rounded education should include

Yet, when we talk about a good education, we must also go beyond the traditional academic focus. We must look to education that supports young people to develop the knowledge, skills, ethical values and attitudes they need to make conscious, healthy and respectful choices about relationships, sex and reproduction.

Based on the evidence, we know that comprehensive sexuality education must be an essential part of a good education that helps prepare young people to make well-informed decisions in a world where HIV and AIDS, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), unintended pregnancies, and gender-based violence still pose serious risks to their well-being.

Comprehensive sexuality education is not just about reproduction, family planning and safe sexual behaviors. It also includes positive aspects of sexuality, such as love and relationships based on mutual respect and equality. It includes discussions about values, rights, culture and gender, about power dynamics based on race, gender, ability or sexuality and how to recognize, challenge and change harmful gender norms. 

The research behind comprehensive sexuality education

UNESCO commissioned two evidence-based reviews around comprehensive sexuality education, in 2008 and 2016, and the facts are now clear. Curriculum-based sexuality education programs do not increase sexual activity, sexual risk-taking behaviors or STI/HIV infection rates. Instead, comprehensive sexuality education increases young people’s knowledge and understanding of sexual and reproductive health, can delay sexual initiation and leads to safer sexual behavior.

The evidence tells us that comprehensive sexuality education also empowers young people to question their social context and challenge negative social norms, including gender norms, and to be part of broader societal efforts towards gender equality.

However, despite the evidence, millions of young people around the world are still making the transition from childhood to adulthood receiving inaccurate, incomplete and judgement-laden information around their physical, social and emotional development.

Moreover, without access to good quality comprehensive sexuality education, we cannot achieve the Sustainable Development Goals we have set for 2030. How can we expand education opportunities if we are not able to improve sexual and reproductive health-related outcomes, such as reducing HIV infection and adolescent pregnancy rates? How can we reduce or prevent gender-based violence and create safe and inclusive learning environments, if we are unable to disrupt harmful gender norms?

A new report: Facing the facts

UNESCO has presented the latest evidence at this year’s Women Deliver Conference 2019, as part of a new report, produced with the Global Education Monitoring Report. The report, Facing the facts: the case for comprehensive sexuality education argues that comprehensive sexuality education is part of the delivery of a quality education. It shows how governments can overcome social resistance and operational constraints to scale up these programs as part of their commitment to SDG 4.

It tells us that one of the main barriers to comprehensive sexuality education is negative and misinformed public attitudes. These could be concerns that this type of education is at odds with local cultural or religious beliefs around sexuality, or that it is inappropriate for young children.

There are also operational constraints. Even in countries with an enabling policy environment, implementation can be thwarted by a lack of teacher preparation and support, a lack of appropriate learning materials, and a lack of planning, financing and monitoring.

Engaging all stakeholders

At UNESCO, our comprehensive sexuality education programming is a key pillar of efforts to strengthen the delivery of quality education for all. We have developed a suite of resources to assist governments in strengthening policy frameworks to ensure comprehensive sexuality education in schools, as well as advocacy tools for civil society partners, parents and teachers to use to assist governments in fulfilling this right.

Our activities in this area need to reach beyond ministers and decision-makers, to ensure teachers receive sufficient training, and guidance to deliver the content of comprehensive sexuality education. Together, we must commit to strong political leadership, invest in teacher education, and improve curricula.

Comprehensive sexuality education is an essential part of a good quality education that helps prepare young people for a fulfilling life in a changing world. It improves sexual and reproductive health outcomes, promotes safe and gender equitable learning environments, and improves education access and achievement.

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