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The Vital Importance of Sexual Education

Why young people deserve comprehensive, nonjudgmental and empowering sexuality education

A student explains to her class how to prevent HIV/AIDS.

A student explains to her class how to prevent HIV/AIDS. (Photo: Masaru Goto / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND)

Evidence of the value of comprehensive sexuality education in young people’s lives is clear and convincing. Over the past decade, a growing number of governments have expressed commitment to delivering sexuality education and health services to adolescents and young people. This progress is immensely encouraging.

Access to education and health care is essential for the health and well-being of young people; it also facilitates their engagement in society and helps them achieve their potential. At the intersection of education and health, CSE is vital to advancing better health outcomes and gender equality. It gives young people the tools they need to have healthy lives and relationships, now and throughout their lives.

CSE programs that recognize sexual activity during adolescence as normal, seek to ensure the safety of such behavior, and focus on human rights, gender equality and empowerment have a positive impact in several critical areas. They improve knowledge, self-confidence and self-esteem among adolescents, and can positively change attitudes and gender and social norms. Such programs also strengthen decision-making and communication skills among students, and enable them to protect themselves against unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. These practical skills are cornerstones for healthy lives that may not be formally taught to young people in any other context.

But there is much work to be done. While governments worldwide have made commitments at the regional and national levels to scale up sexuality education, this is not always implemented in practice. In a recent study conducted in four countries — Kenya, Ghana, Peru and Guatemala — the Guttmacher Institute collaborated with local research partners to examine the implementation of school-based CSE programs. We surveyed thousands of students and educators to shed light on how well the needs of adolescents are being met. In all four countries, fewer than one in 10 surveyed students ages 15-17 had learned about all of the topics outlined in international CSE standards. These topics fit into five categories: sexual and reproductive physiology; HIV/STI prevention; contraception and unintended pregnancy; values and interpersonal skills; and gender, sexual and reproductive rights.

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Our researchers identified several patterns in the delivery of sexuality education. In all four countries, reproductive biology was taught most often; interpersonal skills, contraception and gender-based rights were taught the least. The biggest gap between what students wanted to learn and what they were taught was in contraception and related skills — specifically, what the different methods are, where to get them and how to use them. In Kenya, only 13 percent of surveyed students learned how to use contraception, while 66 percent wanted to learn more.

Young people deserve accurate, complete sexuality education, but abstinence-only teaching and negative messages are common. Numerous studies have proven that programs that focus exclusively on abstinence for the prevention of pregnancy and STIs are not effective at improving adolescents’ sexual and reproductive health. The reality is that many adolescents are already sexually active, and need the proper information and skills to keep themselves and their partners safe. Ideally they would have this information before becoming sexually active. In all cases, young people must receive information that is scientifically accurate. Our study found that in Ghana, nine out of 10 teachers who taught about condoms claimed incorrectly that they are not effective in preventing pregnancy.

Inadequate teacher training on comprehensive sexuality education is a significant obstacle to ensuring young people receive the information they need. How can educators be expected to successfully teach sensitive topics to young people without sufficient guidance? In Peru, for example, fewer than half of surveyed teachers received relevant training before teaching sexuality education. A lack of training, teaching materials, resources and time were widely cited as barriers to the effective implementation of CSE in all four countries that were studied.

The good news is that our researchers found overwhelming support for CSE among students, educators and principals in all four countries. The evidence indicates that CSE is both needed and wanted.

Investing in and prioritizing the delivery of strong CSE programs is a win-win for countries as they seek to improve health outcomes, educational attainment and gender equality. Governments should invest in national programs for CSE, ongoing training for educators and systems for monitoring the implementation of CSE to ensure it is effective. Successful CSE equips adolescents with the information they need to make informed choices and safeguard their well-being. It promotes more inclusive societies; reduces rates of unintended pregnancy and HIV/STI transmission; and empowers youth to live healthy, fulfilling lives. In short, comprehensive sexuality education is simply good policy.

Ann Starrs

Ann M. Starrs is president and CEO of the Guttmacher Institute. A widely recognized expert in reproductive and maternal health, she has authored and co-authored numerous papers and commentaries on global health policy issues during her nearly 30 years in the field. She is also an influential advocate for the health and rights of women and adolescent girls worldwide.

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