What is comprehensive sexuality education? A life saver.

14 November 2019
Author: UNFPA
A youth activist celebrates at the Nairobi Summit closing ceremony. © Nairobi Summit

NAIROBI, Kenya – “If I had known about safe sex in my teens, my life would never have turned out this way,” said 21-year-old Sithu* from Myanmar. He contracted HIV two years ago, despite being intimate only twice with his partner at the time.

Like millions of young people around the world, Sithu had never received any kind of comprehensive sexuality education, in school or elsewhere. 

When he received his diagnosis, his world came crashing down. He even considered taking his own life. But gradually, he found an inner strength and a new purpose.

“What I have been through cannot be reversed, but I want to share my story to save other young people," he said. "I want to provide awareness and sex education to as many adolescents and young people as possible.”

The same clarion call was issued this week by world leaders and representatives from youth groups, civil society and others at the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25. The Summit is mobilizing efforts to meet the sexual and reproductive health of all people. 

This includes reaching young people with the information needed to protect against sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancy and sexual coercion.

"This is the time of our lives when we get curious about our sexuality, about what relationships mean, what sex means. We need to have the right information in our hands for us to be able to make the right choices," said Jayathma Wickramanayake, the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth. "Young people here in Nairobi are not asking for more — we are asking for our basic human rights, our basic freedoms.

Young people outside a youth-friendly health centre in Kamenge,
Bujumbura. © UNFPA/Chiara Frisone

Denied information, with disastrous results

Studies show that when young people are empowered with basic information about their own bodies and reproductive health, they make more responsible choices – such as delaying sexual activity or using protection if they are sexually active. 

When delivered to international standards, these lessons can also promote gender equality and respectful relationships.

But when young people are denied this information, the results are often disastrous, even fatal. 

Globally, HIV is a major cause of adolescent death, and girls are particularly vulnerable; new HIV infections are 60 per cent higher among young women than young men.

Millions of adolescent girls give birth every year, some before their bodies are ready. In fact, complications of pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls.

And too many girls, like Cecile* in Burundi, are exposed to additional risks because they resort to unsafe abortion. “I was afraid for my life,” she recalled. “It was dark and the doctor had only two candles to light [the room].” 

She, too, had been denied basic information about her reproductive health. The topic was considered taboo in her conservative community.

"Some days, I think of how I could have avoided getting pregnant again and again, if only I had the information and the means necessary to protect myself,” she said.

Decades of agreement

Young people like Cecile and Sithu should not be faced with such hardships, participants at the Nairobi Summit urged. 

"Every young person, regardless of their status, regardless of their geographical location, should have access to information" about their sexual and reproductive health and rights, said Mavis Naa Korley Avijee, a youth activist from Ghana attending the Summit.

The world has long agreed that young people deserve accurate and age-appropriate information about their bodies and health.

In 1994, at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, 179 governments called for all countries to meet “the educational and service needs of adolescents to enable them to deal in a positive and responsible way with their sexuality.”

They also called on parents and guardians to provide “appropriate direction and guidance in sexual and reproductive matters.” 

Ana-Maria Odobescu from Moldova is a youth leader and delegate at the
Nairobi Summit. Image courtesy of Ana-Maria Odobescu.

Twenty-five years later, participants at the Nairobi Summit are again calling for action to inform young people of their reproductive health and rights. Already, dozens of Summit attendees have committed to strengthening comprehensive sexuality education for young people, either through school curricula or other means. 

Life skills

There are actually many ways to reach young people with the rights-based, age-appropriate information about sexual and reproductive health.

Comprehensive sexuality education can be delivered through curricula developed by national governments, with help from technical experts to meet international standards.

It can also be delivered through informal life skills programmes that take place outside the classroom. Life skills education is often provided by youth groups and faith-based organizations

In Moldova, Ana-Maria Odobescu benefited from life skills education provided by the UNFPA-supported programme Y-PEER. She now teaches other young people to make healthy choices – and this week she attended the Nairobi Summit as a delegate. 

She has called for all girls to be empowered with education and opportunities. “I urge all young women to trust themselves,” she told UNFPA earlier this year, “and to build their future without caring about stereotypes and other barriers.”

* Name changed

Population : 53.8 mil
Fertility rate
Maternal Mortality Ratio
Contraceptives prevalence rate
Population aged 10-24
Youth secondary school enrollment
Boys 49%
Girls 46%

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