A means to an end, or an end in itself? Rights, access, and comprehensive sexuality education

Guest post by Heather Barclay, International Planned Parenthood Federation

Comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) has been the focus of much discussion and political debate over the years. It has been lauded as the way for young people to be empowered and realize their rights, as well as a means through which to create demand for family planning and sexual health services. But as with many highly politicized debates, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

A hallmark of CSE is its rights-based approach to education about sexuality, gender, sexual and reproductive health, and sexual behavior. It equips young people with life skills and empowers them to make autonomous, informed decisions about their bodies and futures. That means teaching young people comprehensively both about the biology of sex and about the personal, emotional, societal, and cultural forces that shape the way in which they choose to conduct their lives, including their sexual and reproductive lives. In particular, CSE imparts information, promotes responsibility, and equips youth to question why they act in certain ways, so that they can make informed and considered decisions that allow them to have healthy and empowered lives.

CSE has produced tangible health outcomes: A large and growing body of evidence[1] shows that high-quality CSE can help delay young people’s first sex. It can reduce unprotected sex and decrease the number of sexual partners that young people have. It can also increase contraceptive and condom use, and help decrease unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. However, health outcomes are only a part of the picture. In the same way that the impact of education should not be measured only by literacy rate, CSE must not only be measured by uptake in services or by improved health outcomes.

What CSE does, first and foremost, is empower young people to understand themselves, their bodies, their communities, and their lives. It is this learning—so hard to quantify, but essential—that makes CSE a powerful tool for change. It helps young people to understand their bodies and rights and to be confident in advocating for themselves. It supports them to navigate gender norms, identify negative patterns that may be having an impact on their lives, and break free of traditional or historical patterns that are restricting their lives. Further, sexuality is a critical aspect of personal identity. The pleasure that we derive from sexuality is a vital part of our lives: It is an essential part of what makes us human. Empowering young people to understand social norms and to value and identify their personal goals and desires (including reproductive goals and desires) helps to ensure they can and do seek sexual and reproductive health services in a timely and appropriate manner to improve their health.

The question “Is CSE working?” should be answered by exploring a wide set of metrics that include empowerment, confidence, and shifting attitudes in addition to health outcomes. We also need to ask children and young people what skills and information they require from CSE, and understand how they understand and experience the core CSE principles of fairness, equality, participation, protection of bodily integrity, and choice in their daily lives. As they are primary beneficiaries of CSE programming, the experiences of children and young people should be central to programmatic evaluation. Also, the CSE curriculum looks at gender norms and social norms that impact sexuality as well sexual and reproductive health. Therefore, the impact of CSE must be measured in behavior and attitude change in society as well as in changes in service utilization and health outcomes.

The central goal of CSE is the empowerment of our young people: the realization of their human rights, and the expansion of their ability to be active and positive members of our society. When this happens, young people will be able to advocate for the services they need, demand the support they need, and create their own futures—including healthy lives.

[1] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). 2009. International technical guidance on sexuality education: An evidence-informed approach for schools, teachers and health educators. Paris. <http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0018/001832/183281e.pdf>, accessed April 15, 2015

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