UN Guide for Sex Ed Generates Opposition

Published on
by
The New York Times

UN Guide for Sex Ed Generates Opposition

by
Steven Erlanger

PARIS — A set of proposed international sex education guidelines aimed at reducing H.I.V. infections among young people has provoked criticism from conservative groups that say the program would be too explicit for young children and promote access to legal abortion as a right.

The guidelines, scheduled to be released by Unesco in a new draft next week, would be distributed to education ministries, school systems and teachers around the world to help guide teachers in what to teach young people about their bodies, sex, relationships and sexually transmitted diseases. They would address four different age groups.

“In the absence of a vaccine for AIDS, education is the only vaccine we have,” said Mark Richmond, Unesco’s global coordinator for H.I.V. and AIDS and the director of the division that coordinates educational priorities. “Only 40 percent of young people aged 15 to 24 have accurate knowledge” of how the disease is transmitted, he said, even though that age group “accounts for 45 percent of all new cases.”

But the conservative criticism has already caused one of the key participating and donor agencies, the United Nations Population Fund, to pull back from the project and ask that its name be edited out of the published material, United Nations officials said.

A Population Fund official, reached in New York, said Tuesday that the fund wanted changes to the text. “Discussions are ongoing to make the publication more effective and adaptable by countries, so it may better serve countries as guidelines for use in national educational systems,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter.

A draft issued in June has been attacked by conservative and religious groups, mainly in the United States, for recommending discussions of homosexuality, describing sexual abstinence as “only one of a range of choices available to young people” to prevent disease and unwanted pregnancy, and suggesting a discussion of masturbation with children as young as 5.

“If you ever have a situation where kids need to be taught earlier than their adolescence, this is not the way to do it,” said Colin Mason of the Population Research Institute, an anti-abortion organization based in Virginia. “It’s very graphic and encourages practices like masturbation, which conservative Christians and others feel are wrong.”

The diversity of views around the world on these issues renders any universal approach “culturally insensitive,” Mr. Mason said. “We think it’s a kind of one-size-fits-all approach that’s damaging to cultures, religions and to children,” he said.

The barrage of criticism has put Unesco, the United Nations agency charged with advancing education and culture worldwide, on the defensive. The agency has removed the June draft of the guidelines from its Web site, and delayed the release of the final document.

“Unfortunately, the way the guidelines have been presented by certain media has provoked some fairly aggressive reactions, mainly in the form of virulent comment on conservative American Web sites, but also via some very nasty e-mails directed at the two co-authors as well as certain Unesco staff,” said Sue Williams, the spokeswoman for the agency, which is based in Paris.

A team of experts at Unesco has been working on the guidelines for two years, drawing on more than 80 studies of sex education, at a cost of about $350,000. Coordinated with other United Nations agencies, like the World Health Organization and Unicef, the project is intended to help member countries improve sex education and sexual health, reduce H.I.V. and AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, as well as illegal abortions, especially in the developing world.

According to the International Planned Parenthood Federation, each year there are at least 111 million new cases of sexually transmitted disease among people ages 10 to 24; 10 percent of births are to teenage mothers; and up to 4.4 million women 15 to 19 seek abortions.

“The main effort is to try to empower young people with knowledge that could actually save their lives,” said Mr. Richmond, the Unesco H.I.V./AIDS coordinator. “We want to give them the opportunity for more informed choices than currently exist.”

But for some conservative and religious groups, the guidelines are too detailed and too uniform in their recommendations across different cultures, and they remove responsibility from parents.

The guidelines suggest, for example, that teachers begin discussing masturbation with children ages 5 to 8, with a more extensive discussion for those ages 9 to 12.

Michelle Turner, founder of the Maryland-based Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, says children that age should be learning “the proper name of certain parts of their bodies” but “certainly not about masturbation.”

“I’m really concerned about what they want to teach 5- to 8-year-olds, and I have concerns about their position on abortion and the way they want to present it to youth,” she said. “Where are parents’ rights? It’s not up to the government to teach these things.”

But one of the guidelines’ authors, Nanette Ecker, former director of international education and training at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, said that given the extent of sexual abuse, unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, sex education has to start early in order to “provide young people with the specific information and skills they need to navigate safely from childhood to adulthood.”

Conservative groups have also criticized the draft guidelines for discussions of condom use, sexually transmitted diseases and the assertion that “legal abortion performed under sterile conditions by medically trained personnel is safe.” The guidelines suggest discussing “access to safe abortion and post-abortion care” and the “use and misuse of emergency contraception” with those ages 12 to 15. The guidelines recommend that “the right to and access to safe abortion” should also be discussed.

Unesco has responded to the onslaught of criticism by issuing a news release about the guidelines before their release, defending them as “evidence-informed and rights-based.”

The guidelines themselves argue that sex education helps to delay the onset of sexual activity, reduce the number of sexual partners and unprotected sex. In fact, a whole section is devoted to justifying why they have been written and trying to answer the concerns of parents and religious leaders.

“The document is not a curriculum,” Mr. Richmond said. “It focuses on the why and what issues that require attention in strategies to introduce or strengthen sexuality education.”

The final document was scheduled to be released at a conference in Birmingham, England, on Monday. Now the agency says that it will present a new draft then, and that it hopes to produce the final guidelines by the end of the year.

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