No time to waste: Governments owe young people sex and relationships education

Young people in Eastern Europe

Sex and relationships education in Europe and Central Asia is at a crossroads. Years of experience, research and international guidance mean that there are no knowledge gaps in terms of how to provide young people with the crucial life skills that underpin individual and community well-being. We currently see significant levels of progress and international support for sexuality education around the region. And yet, too many governments are still denying their young people effective opportunities to develop the skills to foster healthier and safer relationships, based on equality and respect. 

We believe that progressive civil society organisations must urgently come together to increase the momentum and encourage politicians, especially conservatives, to take a decisive step in the right direction by making this essential investment in the futures of young people and society more broadly.

Vital life skills

The current groundswell of testimony and public debate about sexual violence and abuse illustrates only too well what is at stake when society fails to equip all boys and girls to understand the issues of consent, equity and respect for one’s own boundaries and the boundaries of others. 

Vital skills that are developed by sex and relationships education are particularly important for children and young people from the LGBTI communities because they face much greater risk of violence, abuse, family and social rejection and self-stigma. Sexuality education empowers these children and youngsters to take care of their health, and it plays a key role in ensuring their safe emotional and physical development. 

At community level, it increases equality and respect for diversity in society, benefitting LGBTI children, LGBTI families and their loved ones. When we succeed in changing harmful stereotypes and traditional gender norms, the communities of friends, family and other people who support young LGBTI people are empowered, recognised and protected from stigma and violence. 

We know what works

There is abundant knowledge about what makes effective sexuality education, and several international institutions have published guidelines on how to do it. The case is spelled out in UNESCO’s recent revision of its international technical guidance: “It can help young people reflect on social norms, cultural values and traditional beliefs, in order to better understand and manage their relationships with peers, parents, teachers, other adults and their communities.” This document draws on the vast body of work by the World Health Organization, the German Federal Centre for Health Education (BzGA), the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) over the past decade.  

The importance of sexuality education, and the harm caused when governments fail to provide it, has also been recognized by human rights standard setting bodies and in UN human rights documents. In 2016, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights stated in a General Comment paper that: “Violation of the obligation to fulfil also occurs when States fail to take measures to ensure that up-to-date, accurate information on sexual and reproductive health is publicly available and accessible to all individuals, in appropriate languages and formats, and to ensure that all educational institutions incorporate unbiased, scientifically accurate, evidence-based, age-appropriate and comprehensive sexuality education into their required curricula.”

Positive change is underway

The good news on the ground is that sexuality education has become the norm throughout Europe and Central Asia. In a 2017 report* into the status quo throughout the region, BZgA and IPPF EN showed that in 21 out of 25 countries studied, there is currently a law, policy or strategy either requiring or supporting it. But provision is still far too patchy. The report found that fewer than half of those countries had made sexuality education mandatory and ensured that it covered all the topics proven to have a positive effect on young people’s social-emotional self-care skills.

Chilling effect 

So why are so many governments still neglecting to care for their young people? The main barriers to introducing human rights-based sex and relationships education in schools are ideological. Ultra-conservative groups are spreading misinformation about gender, attacking the teaching of awareness and respect for gender identity and sexual orientation, sexual pleasure and sexual rights. In particular they oppose breaking down harmful and rigid gender norms around masculinity and femininity. They exploit existing taboos and promote smear campaigns to deny young people better sexuality and relationships education in schools, deliberately hindering efforts to change harmful social norms around gender, and tackle gender-based violence, including violence against LGBTI children and young people. 

Because of these tactics, many countries in the region are wasting time on ideological debate instead of figuring out how to improve the provision of sexuality education. And while they talk, new generations are growing up in the digital era without precious life skills, abandoned to learn about sex and relationships from violent online pornography, at increased risk of violence and homophobic and transphobic bullying. The human cost is huge, when governments and societies fail to care. 

Time to act

Despite the challenges, there is a greater opportunity to advocate for effective sexuality education throughout the region than ever before. The needs are urgent and increasingly obvious, and there are evidence-based, proven methodologies for delivering it. We believe that organisations working on LGBTI, gender issues and sexual and reproductive health and rights should work with like-minded groups to create a social movement that will enable education to be used as a tool for building open and equal societies in which all relationships and families are equally valued. Together we can demystify sex and relationships education and ensure that it becomes an everyday part of school life, alongside all the other key subjects. 

* Sexuality Education in Europe and Central Asia: State of the Art and Recent Development - An Overview of 25 Countries - by BZgA (Germany's Federal Centre for Health Education) and IPPF EN. The report will be published in 2018.

By IPPF EN's Drashko Kostovski and Irene Donadio.

This blog was originally published as part of a series #WeLoveSexualHealth by ILGA Europe.