Advancing Comprehensive Sexuality Education to Achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

14 December 2017

Introductory remarks by UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem at the High-level Technical Meeting on Advancing Comprehensive Sexuality Education to Achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, 14 December 2017, Oslo, Norway.

Your Excellency Ms. Solveig Horne, Minister of Children and Equality,

Allow me to begin by thanking the Government of Norway and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation for convening this High-Level Technical Meeting on Advancing Comprehensive Sexuality Education to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 


Distinguished participants,

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am pleased to welcome you all to this meeting. I want to acknowledge especially ministers and other senior government officials from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean as well as Europe and North America who are key to providing the leadership needed to advance comprehensive sexuality education.  

Your countries represent those with the strongest commitments to provide CSE to young people both in and out of school; some of your countries have the most successful examples; and others are among the most promising. 

Thank you for your engagement and commitment to advancing comprehensive sexuality education.

Young people and NGOs are critical to any progress in making CSE work and I deeply appreciate the participation of colleagues from across the world, ranging from young people to academics, and representatives from civil society organizations and the private sector.

I would like to thank our UN sister agencies, particularly UNESCO, WHO and UNAIDS, for their excellent collaboration, support and technical guidance.

It is important that we exchange ideas, build on each other’s strengths and use the platforms we have built together and individually for the good of young people and to realize the goals that we set for ourselves in the 2030 Agenda.

This agenda can only be achieved if we invest in young people.

We have the largest cohort of young people in history – 1.8 billion strong. By investing in their health and education, governments can support young people’s engagement in society, ensure their well-being, and help them achieve their full potential.

Comprehensive sexuality education is the crossroads at which education and health meet. It is vital to advancing health outcomes and gender equality. It gives young people the tools they need to have healthy lives and relationships. It helps them navigate life-changing decisions about their sexual and reproductive health.

Yet, globally, the majority of adolescents lack the knowledge required to make those decisions responsibly, leaving them vulnerable to coercion, sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy.

There is an African proverb that says, “If you close your eyes to facts, you will learn through accidents.”

Many young people receive a range of scientifically incorrect, conflicting and confusing messages about sexuality and gender on a daily basis. This can lead to serious risks for their health, well-being and dignity. As a result, poor sexual and reproductive health outcomes are a reality for many young people today.

At one of our empowerment workshops for teen mothers in Timor-Leste, a collaboration with Plan International, we met Lucia. She entered into a relationship with her much older teacher and much to her surprise got pregnant.  Lucia simply didn’t know anything about sex. Her family forced her to get married before the baby arrived, in their words “to save the situation.”

Mostly Catholic Timor-Leste – like so many countries – actually has a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum. It is seldom taught. 

Many teachers are too embarrassed – some simply rip the pages out of the textbook. Without access to information, let alone services or supplies, it’s not surprising that teen pregnancies are so high in the country. Our programmes must give the accurate, timely information young people are demanding.

Diverse approaches that take into account the situation and life experiences of young people are critical. These vary based on their family situation, socio-economic status, sex, ethnicity, geographical location, religious and cultural beliefs, sexual orientation and gender identity, and other factors.

Different populations have different CSE needs, and the information provided to them should be relevant to their realities to ensure that no one is left behind.

At UNFPA, we and our partners employ a range of approaches -- some designed by young people themselves. Our Innovation Accelerator programme in Eastern and Southern Africa, for example, provides mentoring and seed funding to young innovators, including those from marginalized communities, to help them tackle sexual and reproductive health challenges.

In a number of countries in the region, our mobile site “Tune me” allows young people to anonymously ask questions about relationships, contraceptive options, HIV/AIDS and other sexual and reproductive health concerns they may have. It also serves as a handy source of information for peer educators.

In Mozambique, the Government, in partnership with UNFPA, UNESCO, UNICEF and UN Women, is leading a mentoring programme – Rapariga biz or “Busy Girl”
– that aims to reach 1 million girls with crucial information about their bodies and their rights. The programme teaches them the life skills they need to protect and empower themselves. And the results are impressive: the unintended teen pregnancy rate among participants is far below the national average.

In Bangladesh, largely conservative, Islamic, with a large youthful population, we have Generation Breakthrough, a project supported by UNFPA to empower girls and boys by teaching gender equality, respect for diversity and inclusiveness, and awareness of the patriarchal and religious norms that all too often impede the rights and well-being of women and girls.

Generation Breakthrough engages religious schools and clerics in imparting teachings, often using Koranic scripture to reiterate and strengthen lessons in gender equality and rights – with very positive results!

17-year-old Mohammed recounted how his mother would give him the best pieces of fish, telling him that to take care of his parents in the future, he needed to sharpen his brain. His little sister got the leftovers.

Today, Mohammed is a Generation Breakthrough member fighting for gender equality and advocating that girls can do and be whatever boys can – a message reinforced by the local madrassa.    

These are just a few examples. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but there are enough sizes for everyone.

Young people are more aware, informed and interconnected than ever before. There is an increasing demand for reliable information to prepare them for a safe, productive and fulfilling life.

At the 2012 Bali Global Youth Forum on the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) beyond 2014, young people specifically called on governments to “create enabling environments and policies to ensure that they have access to comprehensive sexuality education in formal and non-formal settings, through reducing barriers and allocating adequate budgets”.

Yet, despite the clear and pressing need for effective CSE, it has, as many of you know, become an increasingly politicized issue in intergovernmental processes. 

Those who oppose CSE often have little knowledge of its elements and base their convictions on misinformation perpetuated by the most conservative elements of our societies. As a result of these groups’ increasing influence, many ICPD issues have come under attack. In some instances, member states cannot even agree to language they had agreed to only two years ago!

There has been a deliberate re-defining of issues such as comprehensive sexuality education, sexual and reproductive health, reproductive rights, access by young people to sexual and reproductive health information and services, gender equality, gender-based violence, family planning, key populations and vulnerable groups, and the diversity of families.

Given the current political environment, it is more important than ever that we debunk the misconceptions with facts and evidence. We hope that by the end of this meeting, we will have a strong network of supporters from all regions who can work together, advocate wherever we can, and engage in the spaces and processes where we can influence decision-making.

This meeting is taking place at a critical time. Member states will have the opportunity to show their commitment to CSE and the wider ICPD agenda through the follow-up and review process of the SDGs, as well as the regional reviews of the ICPD. These are already beginning and will gain momentum in 2018. Working together, we can ensure that the voices of young people are represented throughout these processes.

Many of you gathered here have an exceptionally important role in generating national and international attention to these issues. You can mobilize communities across the world to hold the international community accountable for the commitments they have made.

We need to change the dynamic around CSE, and we have the chance to do it in 2019 when the world reviews progress on Sustainable Development Goal 4 on education. It will also review 25 years of implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action. 

The political challenges are significant. The road may be long. Yet the stakes are incredibly high, especially for the poorest adolescent girls.

In many places, adolescent girls and young women not only lack access to the education that is so fundamental to their health; they lack agency and autonomy over their own bodies.

The statistics speak for themselves:

  • Around 120 million girls worldwide (more than 10%) have experienced forced sexual acts or other forms of intimate partner violence at some point in their lives.
  • Approximately 20 percent of women, and between 5 and 10 percent of men, report having been victims of sexual violence as children.
  • At least 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone female genital mutilation.
  • Child, early and forced marriage violates girls’ fundamental human rights. Yet, nearly 750 million women and girls alive today were married before their 18th birthday.
  • Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for 15- to 19-year-old girls worldwide.
  • The world wants to end HIV, yet the rates are going up, particularly among adolescent girls and young women, since young people do not have the information they need to keep themselves safe. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, new HIV infections among 15-24 year olds increased by approximately 12 percent between 2010 and 2016. HIV and AIDS also continue to have a significant impact in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Each year an estimated 333 million new cases of curable sexually transmitted infections occur worldwide, with the highest rates among 20-24 year olds, followed by 15-19 year olds.

Distinguished Colleagues and Friends,

I would like to finish with a question posed years ago by Dr. Nafis Sadik, Secretary-General of the International Conference on Population and Development and former Executive Director of UNFPA. She asked: “What value system would send young people ignorant into the world, when a little knowledge might save their lives?”

That is what we are talking about: life-saving knowledge, life-changing knowledge.

So, it doesn't matter whether you call it prevention education, relationship and sexuality education, or life-skills education in your national policies. Whatever you call it, comprehensive sexuality education is about relationships, human rights and gender equality. It is about culture, society and sexuality; about opposing violence and staying safe.

It is about developing life skills, such as critical thinking, communication and negotiation; about self-development, self-confidence and decision-making; about taking responsibility and showing empathy.

It nurtures positive attitudes and values, including open-mindedness, respect for oneself and others, and a positive attitude toward sexual and reproductive health and wellbeing.

These are fundamental values and skills everyone needs, especially young people.

We count on your leadership to champion the cause of comprehensive sexuality education, and I hope that by the end of this meeting, you will agree on a draft roadmap for the way forward. One that will help guide how we work together, where we can strengthen and support each other, and how we can be strategic in our engagements.

We cannot give up until every young person has the knowledge to live in health and well-being, the opportunity to reach their full potential, and the space to contribute, together with all of us, to creating a better future for everyone. 

Thank you.


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