Every young person will one day have life-changing decisions to make about their sexual and reproductive health. Yet research shows that the majority of adolescents lack the knowledge required to make those decisions responsibly, leaving them vulnerable to coercion, sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy.

Comprehensive sexuality education enables young people to protect and advocate for their health, well-being and dignity by providing them with a necessary toolkit of knowledge, attitudes and skills. It is a precondition for exercising full bodily autonomy, which requires not only the right to make choices about one’s body but also the information to make these choices in a meaningful way. And because these programmes are based on human rights principles, they advance gender equality and the rights and empowerment of young people. 

UNFPA works with governments to implement comprehensive sexuality education, both in schools and outside of schools through community-based training and outreach. UNFPA also promotes policies for, and investment in, sexuality education programmes that meet internationally agreed upon standards.

Topic summary

What is comprehensive sexuality education?

A demonstration of male and female condoms. © Ollivier Girard

Comprehensive sexuality education is a rights-based and gender-transformative approach to sex ed, whether in school or outside of school. It is most effective when comprehensive sexuality education is taught over several years by integrating age-appropriate information that accounts for the developing capacities of young people. 

Comprehensive sexuality education includes scientifically accurate information about human development, anatomy and reproductive health, as well as information about contraception, childbirth and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV.

But it also goes beyond information, helping young people to explore and nurture positive values regarding their sexual and reproductive health and rights. This education includes discussions about family life, relationships, culture and gender roles, and also addresses human rights, gender equality, bodily autonomy and threats such as discrimination, sexual abuse and violence.

Comprehensive sexuality education should recognize the unique needs of learners, especially vulnerable youth groups – such as LGBTQ+ youth, youth living with disabilities, young people in humanitarian settings, young people who use drugs, young people living with HIV, and young transgender people – and should be tailored to reflect their realities.

Taken together, these programmes help young people develop self-esteem and life skills that encourage critical thinking, clear communication, responsible decision-making and respectful and empathetic behaviour.

According to the International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education, comprehensive sexuality education must be:

  • Scientifically accurate
  • Incremental 
  • Age - and developmentally - appropriate
  • Curriculum based 
  • Comprehensive 
  • Based on a human rights approach
  • Based on gender equality 
  • Culturally relevant and context appropriate 
  • Transformative
  • Able to help develop life skills needed to support healthy choices
     

8 Key Concepts of Comprehensive Sexuality Education according to the International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education

List of 8 Key Concepts of Comprehensive Sexuality Education according to the International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education

This education may go by other names, such as “life skills,” “holistic sexuality education”, “family life,” “healthy lifestyle,” “sex ed”, or “HIV” education. These names may imply differences in emphasis. For example, life skills education may include a focus on caring for sick family members, coping with loss or other similar issues.

No matter what it’s called, comprehensive sexuality education empowers all young people to know, demand and protect their rights. The importance of sexuality education has been recognized by numerous international agreements, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS.

Key facts about comprehensive sexuality education

  1. Comprehensive sexuality education does not lead to earlier sexual activity or riskier sexual behaviour.
  2. In fact, these programmes reduce risky behaviours: About two thirds of evaluations show reductions in targeted risky behaviours. About 60 per cent of programmes had a positive effect on at least one behavioural or biological outcome, such as increased condom use or reduced unplanned pregnancies.
  3. Studies of abstinence-only programmes are either inconclusive or show abstinence-only education to be ineffective at improving health outcomes.
  4. Delivering high-quality comprehensive sexuality education requires training and support.
  5. Addressing gender and power issues also leads to better health outcomes.
  6. To be most effective, curricula must be tailored to the specific context and needs of young people.
  7. Engaging parents and communities as part of this education is critical. Sexuality education is most effective when school-based programmes are complemented by community-based initiatives.

What is UNFPA doing?

UNFPA works to empower young people to shape the lives they want. That means mitigating adolescents’ risk of developing harmful behaviours, while promoting positive, protective actions and attitudes.

Comprehensive sexuality education is a key component of this strategy. UNFPA works with governments and partners to develop and implement comprehensive sexuality education programmes that meet international technical standards. UNFPA also advocates for policies on, and investments in, comprehensive sexuality education, both in and out of schools. For example, recognizing that traditional sexuality education does not meet the needs of all young people, such as populations outside of school, UNFPA and partners (UNESCO, WHO, UNICEF, UNAIDS) launched the International Technical and Programmatic Guidance on Out-of-School Comprehensive Sexuality Education in 2020. This guidance provides evidence-based, human rights-centered guidelines and recommendations for reaching the most vulnerable young people. Out-of-school programmes often include community-based training and education, and may target groups such as married adolescent girls, youth engaged with sex work, homeless youth, migrants and refugees, LGBTQ+ youth, youth in remote rural areas, youth living with disabilities, or those living in conflict zones. 

In 2019, UNFPA launched an initiative for out-of-school comprehensive sexuality education specifically targeting frequently left-behind young people. This programme proved timely; it was adapted to continue reaching youth through digital technology during the COVID-19 global pandemic. For example, Latin America and the Caribbean region established a Centre of Excellence with digital training courses based on the out-of-school guidance. In Iran, UNFPA’s mHealth digital platform was adapted to allow young people to communicate with health experts. In Albania, online platforms were able to reach 35,000 young people during school closures.

Many countries have also been expanding the breadth of their curricula in response to UNFPA’s International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education. In Lao People’s Democratic Republic, a participatory process was used to develop lesson plans and learning objectives after an analysis revealing a lack of gender, rights, sexual behavior and equitable social norms content in the existing Life Skills curricula. In South Africa, the guidance was used to develop lesson plans and training for teachers to empower them to address important sensitive topics that might otherwise be left out of the curriculum. Other examples can be found in The Global Status Report on Comprehensive Sexuality Education. For more information regarding what UNFPA is doing, please contact cse.info@unfpa.org.

 

Updated 13 September 2021.