Math, Science…and Sex! Peruvian Ministry of Education Elevates Importance of Sexuality Education

The Peruvian Ministry of Education (MINEDU) has taken the bold move to incorporate issues related to sexuality into its mainstream national educational framework. In doing so, it’s leaving behind an educational tradition based on memorization and repetition of dates, names, and facts, and embracing an approach that encourages youth to be creative thinkers, engaged citizens, and active protagonists in their own lives.

The educational framework contains eight learning objectives, one of which mandates that students should be able to construct and value their identity, live their sexuality in accordance with healthy development, and establish positive relationships. While many countries think sexuality education should only take place in the home, MINEDU recognizes that sexuality is a normal, important part of young people’s development. In fact, MINEDU believes that comprehensive sexuality education is a human right.

More importantly, MINEDU recognizes that young people haven’t been able to exercise their right to receive sexuality education. As the framework explains, the learning objective that includes sexuality recognizes that there are different dimensions of life (including biological, social, and sexual) that traditionally have been taught in a very fragmented and uneven way, if even taught at all.  The new approach aims to support young people’s development of both intellectual and emotional skills so they can contribute positively to the world and lead happy lives.

There are 8.5 million young people in Peru, making up almost 30 percent of the population. Many of these young people don’t have access to sexuality education or services. Only 19 percent of young women have a comprehensive knowledge of HIV and more than one-quarter of teens ages 15 to 19 from the poorest 20 percent of households have begun childbearing. The rate of early childbearing is nearly six times greater among those from the poorest households compared to the wealthiest.

Considering that more than 90 percent of young people are enrolled in secondary school, integrating sexuality education into the standard curriculum presents a chance to reach a captive audience with much-needed information.

In a recent trip to Peru to learn how the International Women’s Health Coalition can support this new educational framework, I spoke with three youth volunteers for our partner Instituto de Educación y Salud (IES). When asked if they agreed with the idea of including sexuality education in the new framework, all three of them said that they thought it was long overdue.

Manuel, a 25-year-old accountant, has seen the damage that a lack of information can cause. He said, “When we talk about sexuality, the key word is trust. And there isn’t any in the home or in the school. And it’s so important to have this trust, to talk, to share information…We aren’t reaching young people in time [to prevent sexual and reproductive health problems]…not in school and not at home.”

Ximena, a 23-year-old volunteer with the organization, echoes Manuel’s thoughts. “The teachers teach you the wrong things; they themselves don’t feel comfortable talking,” she said.

Lurdes, a 25-year-old volunteer who has been working with IES for 13 years, believes that sexuality education, if done right, can help address these problems. She explained how sexuality education needs to go beyond reproduction and biology, and include discussion of gender. She said, “Sexuality is so much more than just reproduction. And we need to talk about it from birth. From such a young age, we segment the population. We dress boys in blue and girls in pink, boys get trucks and guns and girls get dolls. Kids are given roles that they have to fulfill and they are not given the opportunities to do more than that. And when they try, boys are told to be a man, don’t cry and always make the first move. And girls are told to be delicate and wait to be rescued.”

The youth volunteers at IES have been helping fill the gap in sexuality education by answering other young people’s questions about sexuality through IES’s youth-focused website called Punto J (Youth Spot). Through this portal, the volunteers respond anonymously to young people’s questions about everything from pregnancy to HIV.

The new educational framework gives them the opportunity to really scale up their work.  As part of a new project funded by IWHC, IES’ youth volunteers will use the Punto J website to share information on the new framework with their peers, host debates between young people about its content, and gather feedback from them on how they think it should be rolled out to public schools. IES staff will also be meeting with regional educational experts and teachers to solicit their input on the sexuality piece of the new framework, while at the same time sensitizing them to the importance of comprehensive sexuality education in the classroom.

While I agreed with the youth volunteers and staff at IES, I wanted to hear from the actual students who would be impacted by the changes in the framework. I travelled out to a school called Institución Educativa Las Palermas in Villa El Salvador, a marginalized neighborhood of Lima. I met with dozens of 13- to 14-year-olds and asked them what topics they would want included in their classes. Many responded that they wanted more classes in music, dance, and theater. Following up, I asked what issues they thought song, dance, and plays should touch on. One young girl immediately shouted “Love!” and others followed up with “family, relationships, bullying, and violence.”

The connection to sexuality education is clear. Young people want to talk about these topics, and they want to do so in school, with their peers. Peru’s educational reform is a chance to bring these topics into the classroom. In IES’s opinion, if done right, the benefits will be enormous.

Lurdes summed it up very well. “Sexuality education teaches kids to question things at a young age, even to do things like respect the environment and each other. It can teach young people to think about how their studies can benefit their communities, how they can be happy, how they can define happiness by measures besides how much they can afford to buy. All this can be accomplished with good education.”

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