Sexual and reproductive health education can be a controversial topic. We may have been told by someone that by teaching children how to have sex, we are undermining the institution of marriage and that we are also being insensitive to local culture or even that we are usurping the role of parents. ”Parents can teach their own kids sex-ed but that doesn’t mean they will". We need to challenge these arguments that crop up against providing sexual and reproductive health education.
Every parent wants the best for their child. Nobody wants their child to contract HIV or any other STD. Parents especially don’t want their daughters to be mothers while they are still children. They might think that not teaching children about sex will prevent them from having sex. But the evidence shows that the reverse is true. Not teaching about sex does not mean they will not have sex, it means that they are more likely to have unsafe, unprotected sex. It leaves them alone, entering the world of adulthood unprepared and unguided.
Everyone has the responsibility of protecting the youth in this era. They are entering puberty earlier than before, and the transition from childhood to adulthood is getting longer. During that period, the youth should not be left alone. To keep children away from invaders of their childhood, we know that good quality sexual and reproductive health education including gender, anatomy and human rights can lead to a decrease in unintended pregnancies and all the taboos linked with the sexual health of teens. Research shows that what a child learns about sexual and reproductive health can largely shape their own attitudes towards this subject.
In that case, is it really an early key to adulthood?
The problems caused by the lack of sexual and reproductive health education
Unwanted teen pregnancies
There were nearly 250,000 babies born in 2014 to teen moms and about 77% of pregnancies were unplanned and unwanted. 11% of births were to girls aged 15-19, and the majority of these were in low and middle-income earning countries. Most of them opt to terminate their pregnancies. On the other hand, a new life is created, so it puts the teen in a place where she is responsible not only for herself but also for that new life. They are given a burden they are not ready for or capable of bearing.
Violence, sexual assault and rape
Interpersonal violence is the third leading cause of adolescent deaths globally. Nearly 1 in 3 adolescent girls, which is about 84 million, have been a victim of emotional, physical, and sexual violence perpetrated by their partners or maybe strangers. Furthermore, specific groups are disproportionately affected by violence and assault including LGBTQ communities, children, and indigenous women. This is an epidemic as well as an enormous problem. In addition, the Centre for Disease Control notes that 1 in 5 women will be raped in their lives and over 40 of those will be assaulted before they turn 18. That gives evidence to the need for sexual education which can be effective in addressing the abusive attitudes towards various groups and also help to create gender equitable attitudes which directly helps to prevent physical and psychological violence towards adolescents.
“When I was 15, I was violently raped by a stranger on a night out with my friends. I was too young to understand the complexity of this kind of violence but old enough to know that I should be deeply ashamed of it -- so I told no one. The physical trauma I experienced has wrecked havoc on my body and left me with two chronic illnesses that will stay with me for life."
Children are especially vulnerable to abuse and rape in their school years because they are not aware of what is right and wrong with regards to their bodies. The triggering issue is that as the child does not know how to identify their genitals, they are going to be less equipped to report inappropriate touching or abuse. Scenarios like this leads to STDs in young children as well. According to the WHO data, each day 1 million people are infected with sexually transmitted diseases. An estimated number of 2.1 million adolescents were infected with HIV in 2016. The great majority out of those numbers were in the African region. However, a substantial proportion of HIV positive adolescents are unaware of their status, and many of those who are aware do not receive effective treatment due to the stigma surrounding the whole issue.
The curiosity of children
When children receive age accurate information about sexual and reproductive health, they are more likely to practice acceptance and promote inclusivity while also being aware of the morals and ethics that are related to sexual practices. Creating that kind of school environment is difficult if the school curriculum is silent on those subjects and children are left to gain such knowledge from their equally ignorant friends or the Internet. Sex should not be regarded as a taboo subject and teachers must not be uncomfortable talking about it to ensure that children are given the necessary information to lead a happy and healthy life.
Why should we have sexual and reproductive health education?
Research has found that countries with comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education programmes have lower teen pregnancy rates. The exceptionally low teen pregnancy rate in Switzerland exists as result of the long-established sex education programmes, widespread free family planning services, etc. Also it is noted that teen pregnancy rates vary with the level of education and the cultural background of the adolescents as well. Furthermore, as a result of receiving comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education there has also been a decrease in the infection rates of STDs within adolescents.
We are now in need of new and innovative approaches to sexual education. We need to think outside the box and use the leverage of technology and connectivity in the youth. We know that 90% of the youth are connected to the Internet. What options do they have to find appropriate information regarding their questions on this topic in cyberspace? What are the alternatives to pornography for the youth who are curious about this issue? We need to step up our efforts to find out strategies, content and resource people to deliver sexual and reproductive health information in safe, positive and age appropriate ways because today’s youth is going to handle the social fabric, economy and the well-being of the world in decades to come.