All girls and boys – and all women and men, for that matter – can benefit from comprehensive knowledge about safe sexual behavior. Yet opposition to sexuality education is loud, persistent, and widespread, often because critics lack an accurate understanding of what it entails.
Sexuality education empowers people to make informed choices about their own bodies and sexuality – and to stay safe in the process. It is therefore an essential element of a quality education. Yet, far from promoting comprehensive sexuality education, many are fighting to limit it. The consequences – especially for young people – are serious, lasting, and sometimes deadly.
As “Facing the Facts,” a new policy paper by UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report, reminds us, each year some 16 million girls aged 15-19 (and two million under 15) give birth – a development that often marks the end of their formal education. Another three million girls aged 15-19 undergo unsafe abortions each year.
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These numbers are linked to a lack of education about sex, sexuality, and the human body. For example, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, according to WaterAid, around one-half of girls think that menstruation is a disease. In Afghanistan, 51% of girls know nothing about menstruation before experiencing it themselves. In Malawi, that figure jumps to 82%. If girls – let alone boys – do not know what menstruation is, how can they possibly be expected to protect themselves against unwanted pregnancy?
The same goes for sexually transmitted infections like HIV. Young people aged 15-24 account for one-third of new HIV infections among adults. This is partly because only one-third of young women in most low- and middle-income countries know how to prevent the transmission of the virus.
But, contrary to popular belief, sexuality education is not just about sex. As “Facing the Facts” highlights, it also includes lessons about families and social relationships. These can benefit children as young as five, not least by enabling them to differentiate between appropriate physical contact and abuse.
Moreover, sexuality education offers important lessons about gender dynamics, including issues such as consent, coercion, and violence. Some 120 million girls worldwide – slightly more than one in ten – have experienced forced intercourse, forced sexual acts, or other forms of intimate partner violence at some point in their lives. This helps to explain why violence is the second leading cause of death among adolescent girls globally.
Comprehensive sexuality education can go some way toward countering the warped messages about masculinity that encourage male sexual dominance and so often lead to exploitation and violence. It can also assist in breaking the silence on such experiences among victims, potentially inspiring them to seek help.
All girls and boys – and all women and men, for that matter – can benefit from comprehensive knowledge about safe sexual behavior. Yet opposition to sexuality education is loud, persistent, and widespread. Some call for it to be banned outright. Others insist that schools should teach only abstinence, despite evidence showing that such programs often provide medically inaccurate information.
Like critics of LGBTQI+ education, opponents of comprehensive sexuality education seek to justify their stance on cultural, religious, social, or even political grounds. But, whatever the apparent motivation, their opposition often reflects a lack of knowledge about what such education entails. Improving the public’s understanding of sexuality education could therefore help to neutralize the negative hype and open the way for more young people to benefit.
Leaders worldwide must stand up for comprehensive sexuality education, by touting its clear, evidence-based benefits and dispelling harmful myths. An informed news media and advocacy by civil-society groups must also contribute to this process. With accurate information, the public is far more likely to accept sexuality education.
But for such education to be meaningful, it must be of high quality. Teachers must therefore be given the knowledge, resources, and, thus, confidence they need to teach these lessons effectively. Scripted lessons, like those introduced in Namibia and Chile, or online resources for teachers, as Tanzania provides, can go a long way toward fulfilling that need.
Furthermore, sexuality education should ideally be provided as a standalone program, rather than integrated into other subjects (a common practice that diminishes its impact). And it must be complemented by widely accessible, youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services.
It is time to face the facts: humans have sex, often long before they reach adulthood. And it is immoral – perverse, even – to withhold potentially life-saving information from young people. After all, knowledge is power. By giving today’s youth, and girls in particular, a better understanding of their bodies, we can give them the power to protect their health – and their futures.