Sexual health education around the world ranges in form and format, from abstinence-only sex “education” to comprehensive and inclusive guidance that empowers people to make healthy decisions.
Foregoing reproductive health education, or offering incomplete instruction, has clear downsides. According to UNESCO, only 34% of young people globally know how to accurately prevent the transmission of HIV, and two out of three girls in some countries do not understand menstruation. Comprehensive reproductive health and sexuality education can be a cost-effective way to increase contraceptive use and provide teens and adults of all ages with crucial information they need to make healthy choices throughout their lives.
What is the state of reproductive health education around the world?
The terminology for sexual education differs from region to region, with some countries using the term “sex education,” and others using “reproductive health education” or “comprehensive sexuality education” (CSE). Regardless of terminology, reproductive health education has evolved in several countries in recent years, but there is still progress to be made.
For years, advocates across China have pushed for more comprehensive sexual education as a way to prevent sexual abuse and harassment, as well as prepare adolescents for adulthood. A survey from the China Family Planning Association and Tsinghua University found that just 52% of the 54,580 university students polled said they had received sex education. Health advocates are hoping those numbers will change for the better once a new amendment requiring sex education goes into effect in June 2021.
Sex education was banned for years in many states across India, a reality that likely contributed to the country’s HIV epidemic and high rates of child marriage. The Indian government rolled out a national sex education program in 2018, which aims to combat rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), child marriage, school dropouts, and unintended pregnancies.
Countries across the African continent regularly top lists of teen pregnancy rates around the world, with Uganda coming in at number 13 according to 2017 data. One out of every four Ugandan girls between the ages of 15-19 have become pregnant, and by age 50, one-quarter of women report experiencing a sexually transmitted infection (STI). A dearth of sexual education has no doubt contributed to these numbers.
Sexual education advocates across Uganda and many other African countries must combat deeply ingrained cultural norms that oppose family planning methods and place insufficient value in educating women and girls, who are often married at a young age. However, there is hope that these trends will change. In May 2018, the Ugandan government lifted a parliamentary ban on sexual education beyond abstinence.
Sexual education across the US is fragmented and unequal, with some teens receiving abstinence-only instruction and others receiving comprehensive sexuality education. According to research by the Guttmacher Institute, 57% of teenage males and 43% of teenage females in the study didn’t receive information about birth control before their first time having sex. The US, a country with immense resources, would seeem to have little excuse for its lackluster implementation of sex education—although, in truth, such programs continually face well-organized opposition from various special interest groups.
What should reproductive health education look like?
Sex education will not look exactly the same in every country or region around the world because of differences in cultural practices, economic realities, and societal contexts. Regardless, every nation should strive to provide citizens with comprehensive sexuality education that empowers everyone to:
- Recognize their own health and dignity
- Develop healthy relationships
- Avoid unintended pregnancies and HIV/STIs
- Consider how their choices could impact others
- Understand and defend their own rights
Young people today have unprecedented access to information provided by the internet and other forms of media. Quality sexual health education programs should teach students how to evaluate media and peer influences, so they can effectively filter out misinformation and dispel common reproductive health myths.
Programs should also instruct students on how to access sexual health products and services (such as HIV/STD testing and condoms); communicate with teachers, family members, and peers about sexual health issues; and make informed decisions regarding their sexual and reproductive health.
A comprehensive sex education curriculum will have little impact without prepared and effective instructors who teach the curriculum in full, rather than selectively. Those who are teaching sex education should strive to meet the following standards:
- Present the material in a relevant and engaging way for all students
- Consider the needs of all students, including those who identify as gay, lesbian bisexual, transgender, and questioning
- Make an effort to connect students to sexual health services at school and in the community
- Engage families, parents, and community organizations in school programs
Schools are arguably the best venue for providing comprehensive sex education because of their ability to reach a large percentage of the population, but communities should also provide non-school-based education and health services to make sure everyone has access to critical health information and services.
What are the potential impacts of reproductive health education?
The positive impacts of comprehensive sexuality education are clear, and evidence supporting the argument for its widespread implementation continues to grow. According to UNESCO, sexuality education programs can contribute to the following outcomes:
- Delayed initiation of sex
- Fewer sex partners
- Less frequent unprotected sex
- Increased use of protection, specifically condoms
- Reduction of risk-taking sexual behaviors
Those who are opposed to sex education often argue that it leads to increased sexual activity and risky behaviors, but research actually points to the opposite. According to UNESCO, sex education, both within and outside of schools, does not lead to an increase in sexual activity, risk-taking behavior, or rates of HIV/STIs. Abstinence-only sex education has proven to be ineffective at delaying and decreasing sexual activity.
When properly implemented, comprehensive sexuality education is a cost-effective way to put students on a track toward healthy decision-making and away from risky or ill-informed sexual and reproductive choices. When that instruction is inclusive and encourages equality and respect for all, society and the world as a whole benefit.
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Comprehensive reproductive health education is just one piece of the sustainability puzzle. In order to avoid the most extreme population growth projections, we need to address all facets of the issue, from increasing access to a full continuum of reproductive healthcare to dismantling deeply ingrained norms and misinformation.
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