This summer, a draft of International Guidelines on Sexuality Education by the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) became available online. Since then, the guidelines have generated controversy from conservatives who claim they’re too explicit. A week ago, the New York Times even published an article implying that the international criticism had the United Nations backpedaling on its initial position.
Luckily, it looks like the original drafters are standing behind their guidelines. As well they should.
The publication, International Guidelines on Sexuality Education: An Evidence Informed Approach to Effective Sex, Relationships and HIV/STI Education, is a fantastic document that will do much to promote the health of youth and women if implemented. It reinforces the recent UN Commission on Population and Development resolution stating that young people have the right to “comprehensive education on human sexuality, sexual and reproductive health, on gender equality and on how to deal positively and responsibly with their sexuality,” and manages to be diplomatic and culturally sensitive in doing so.
Specifically, the guidelines’ authors don’t back away from important rights-based issues, including sexual orientation and family structure, honest and open discussion about sexual pleasure (including masturbation), and the difference between legal, safe abortion and unsafe abortion. These are some of the most comprehensive guidelines for sexuality education I’ve seen, with a healthy dose of respect, awareness of age and culture, and attention to international and national laws and standards. In each section, the guidelines consider the effects of gender inequality and social isolation on adolescents’ abilities to determine their own health outcomes. They draw special attention to the need to provide detailed information on not only the necessity but also the availability and legal status of health services.
And that’s all just in the topics and learning objectives! The real strength of these guidelines is in the rationale for sexuality education. Here the drafting committee has managed to give a primer for how to demonstrate the need and advocate for the implementation of sexuality education in schools and communities. We so frequently overlook the implementation – forget that once you get sex ed into a curriculum, you still need teachers and administrators who support it and have some level of expertise to teach it. They also provide an analysis of the research to date – what it supports and what it doesn’t, and uses the evidence base to reject common misconceptions about sexuality education. And perhaps most importantly, the rationale breaks down the characteristics of effective sexuality education programs in two ways: those that lead to behavior change, and those that lead to behavior change and address human rights.
Despite the controversy surrounding them, the UNESCO guidelines simply reinforce the fundamental idea that comprehensive sexuality education is an integral part of any rights-based educational system, and is a foundation for sexual and reproductive health and bodily integrity. Call me crazy, but I don’t see anything wrong with that. In fact, I think it’s a great step towards promoting the health and rights of women and young people worldwide.