Time for Comprehensive Sexuality Education in Schools

Namitha Kuttiparambil

Examining CSE as a tool for Sex and Sexuality Education for adolescents and young people – its challenges and interpretation

In this digital age, with information available at their fingertips, adolescents and young people are increasingly turning to dubious sources of information to answer their questions on relationships, sex, and sexuality. This might cause them to fall prey to exploitation or lead them to acquire harmful behaviors that could affect them or people around them. So, it is essential to arm them with high quality, age-appropriate sex and sexuality education. 

“Differing views of policymakers, educators, and parents, along with prevalent societal perceptions, such as ones that argue that providing sex education to adolescents and young people would encourage promiscuity and experimentation, have led to multiple roadblocks”

For decades now, the curriculum, necessity, and delivery of sex education have been topics of contention across the globe. Differing views of policymakers, educators, and parents, along with prevalent societal perceptions, such as ones that argue that providing sex education to adolescents and young people would encourage promiscuity and experimentation, have led to multiple roadblocks. This is despite the fact that 179 governments adopted a Programme of Action at the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 which, among other things, put forth the need to provide adolescents with appropriate services, information, and unbiased guidance in order to educate, empower, and address their sexual and reproductive health issues. Over the years, various approaches to sex education have been adopted including abstinence-only, stress-abstinence, and Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE). However, it was only pursued with renewed vigour after the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. 

“Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) is a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical, and social aspects of sexuality. It aims to equip children and young people with knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values that will empower them to – realize their health, well-being and dignity; develop respectful social and sexual relationships; consider how their choices affect their well-being and that of others; and, understand and ensure the protection of their rights throughout their lives.”

“The programme doesn’t restrict itself to reproduction, risks, disease and abstinence. All of which are topics usually highlighted when providing sex education to adolescents and young people”

With a definition like that, CSE is ambitious. The programme doesn’t restrict itself to reproduction, risks, disease and abstinence. All of which are topics usually highlighted when providing sex education to adolescents and young people. Instead, it focuses on providing learners scientific knowledge and helping them develop life skills and attitudes using a rights-based approach while concentrating on eight key areas. These are – relationships, values, rights, culture and sexuality, understanding gender, violence and staying safe, skills for health and well-being, the human body and development, sexuality and sexual behaviour, and sexual and reproductive health. 

Each of the key areas consists of multiple topics that are further broken down into “learning objectives”. These objectives deal with familial, platonic and romantic relationships, and attempt to inspect them through the lenses of human rights, culture and society, and its norms, stereotypes, structures and stigma. They also provide an insight into the interplay all of these have, not only with each other but also with sex, sexuality, and associated behaviours and responses including violence, gender-based violence, power imbalances, and consent. 

“tools have been included to help users to find reliable information, safely navigate the web of information and communication technologies, safeguard one’s privacy online and offline”

Conventionally taught subjects affiliated to the human body, reproduction and reproductive health are also included. Additionally, tools have been included to help users to find reliable information, safely navigate the web of information and communication technologies, safeguard ones privacy online and offline, and develop the skills required to make sound decisions and communicate and negotiate effectively.  

Learning objectives are taught in differing degrees to children of the four target age groups (i.e. age 5-8, age 9-12, age 12-15, age 15-18+). The objectives are presented in a manner that is best suited to each age group. Younger children are provided with simple concepts and a basic foundation onto which advanced information is gradually added. 

“CSE accepts adolescents and young people as beings with sexual feelings, desires and questions that need to be talked about and answered rather than shrouded under a blanket of silence, shame or embarrassment”

Through all this, it is evident that CSE accepts adolescents and young people as beings with sexual feelings, desires and questions that need to be talked about and answered rather than shrouded under a blanket of silence, shame or embarrassment. It understands that different populations (eg: LGBTI youth, young people living in poverty, young people with disabilities) have different CSE needs. It recognises that along with STDs, STIs, HIV/AIDS and unwanted pregnancies the impact that mental/emotional health, alcohol, tobacco and substance use, and information and communication technologies have on the interpretation of sex and sexuality by adolescents and young people also needs to be addressed.

That being said, CSE comes with its challenges, some of which have different meanings in diverse socio-economic and political contexts. A review of “The World Starts with Me” – one of the 18 programmes recommended as truly comprehensive in UNESCO’s (2010) International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education – sheds light on some of the major causes of concern when talking about CSE.

Ineffective Programme Delivery: According to the review, implementation assessments established that some learning objectives were not being delivered in the manner intended. Lessons, especially concerning sensitive topics (eg. abortion, masturbation) were shortened or skipped entirely and activities that are suggested to encourage and facilitate skill building were often neglected or deliberately avoided. 

“many teachers were still unable to let go of their traditional and cultural beliefs and continued to use fear-based messages to teach abstinence and propagate the idea that sex and sexuality are topics that are immoral or taboo”

Teachers Beliefs: Despite undergoing training, appreciating it and understanding and endorsing its positive impact, many teachers were still unable to let go of their traditional and cultural beliefs and continued to use fear-based messages to teach abstinence and propagate the idea that sex and sexuality are topics that are immoral or taboo, at least when it comes to young, unmarried people. This affects the positive impact of CSE by propagating the cycle of judgement and stigma rather than ending it.

Contextual Barriers: Implementing a programme like CSE becomes especially difficult in countries where not only the school administration and other members of staff, but also the education ministries at the local and national level endorse messages that are contradictory to it and may even have laws prohibiting the sharing of information or the conduct of certain activities (such as condom demonstration). In such environments, the tension between the programme requirements and the beliefs or personal norms of the teachers implementing it, are heightened. Moreover, in some countries, there is a lack of access to youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health and rights services. The program also fails in contexts where the students witness and learn conflicting ideas at home. 

An in-depth review of CSE in Thailand showcases additional challenges and observations. One of the points brought to the fore was that sexuality education in Thailand was aimed at solving specific issues (such as unwanted pregnancies among youth), which doesn’t adhere to the holistic approach and aspirations of CSE and contradicts research which notes that teaching topics related to gender, power, and rights enhance the effectiveness of the program, especially when talking about the prevention of unwanted pregnancies. 

“It highlights the need for more active parental involvement and open communication between the school and parents to not only appease parents anxieties about sexuality education but also to help them adjust their attitudes so that open lines of communication can exist between family members”

The review also noted that a lack of a monitoring and evaluation system that is based on clear indicators thwarted efficient imparting of CSE and suggests a review of the general framework of sexuality education in the country by policymakers. It highlights the need for more active parental involvement and open communication between the school and parents to not only appease parents anxieties about sexuality education but also to help them adjust their attitudes so that open lines of communication can exist between family members, which in itself would reduce a considerable amount of secrecy and stress between both parties.

This also serves as an example of the criteria to be considered when developing and adapting a CSE curriculum. Designing CSE for a given context is a crucial step in the entire process. It should strive for community and individual involvement of both, the target population and their parents in order to assess their needs against the resources available. This step is as important as curating and sequencing the content and activities based on it and assimilating scientific data to back it. Implementation strategies also need to be put into place and feedback/evaluation chains established to monitor and eventually scale up the programme. 

“the possibility of adapting CSE for any given context does add to its relevance and has a huge advantage, but on the flip side, it may also be one of the provisions that can be exploited in a manner that ends up hindering CSE implementation in the long run”

While there will always be challenges shared between various countries across the globe in terms of implementation of CSE, the context in which the programme is implemented is a major determiner of the specific challenges that may come up. Moreover, the possibility of adapting CSE for any given context does add to its relevance and has a huge advantage, but on the flip side, it may also be one of the provisions that can be exploited in a manner that ends up hindering CSE implementation in the long run, especially if evidence and progress aren’t tracked efficiently. 

That said, CSE could prove to be one of the most powerful tools for empowering future generations. However, in order for it to serve its purpose, educators, policymakers, and parents will have to attempt to address their values, ideas and prevalent societal norms through the eyes of evidence-backed science and logic. Youth-friendly services and policies are needed and the participation of adolescents and young people should be encouraged in every step of the process. 

This is especially necessary for countries like India where conversations about adolescent and young people’s sexuality and sexual and reproductive health and needs are still taboo. Misinformation is abundant and gender-based violence along with unfair social norms, stigma, stereotypes still exist.

Namitha is an Architect who finds solace in stringing dance moves and words together, though usually not at the same time.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

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