Can Sexuality Education Achieve Outcomes Beyond Improved Health? Evidence, Ideas, and a Research Role for NGOs‬

A Conversation with Deborah Rogow

Susan Wood, IWHC’s Director of Program Learning and Evaluation, spoke with Debbie Rogow, longtime consultant to the Population Council, about research on comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) and possible benefits beyond the prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

SW: In a Journal of Adolescent Health article, you and Nicole Haberland suggest that sexuality education programs that emphasize critical thinking about gender and human rights may have positive results beyond health. What types of other outcomes?

DR: We’re interested in social and educational benefits, especially for girls. These wider outcomes have rarely been included in program goals, so very few evaluations have looked at them. That said, there are a few rigorous evaluations of gender- and power-focused programs—what we call “empowerment CSE”—that showed greater female control over the terms of sex, adoption of more equitable gender norms, and fewer reports of intimate partner violence.

There are hints that these programs may have educational benefits as well. One U.S. study found that students who participated in the program were less likely to fail other courses or be suspended from school. Case studies have found that educators trained to deliver such programs have become more attuned to gender inequality in the classroom, and have adopted more critical-thinking pedagogies across their teaching.

There are other potential outcomes worth examining: social support networks for girls who are out of school; positive attitudes toward sexual rights; girls’ continuation and leadership in school; improved school safety; and reductions in homophobic bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual coercion (including by teachers) at school.

SW: NGOs providing CSE are often not working at a scale that would allow for meaningful quantitative evaluation. How might these organizations generate and share learning that would contribute to an understanding of what CSE can help to achieve?

DR: Great question. NGOs in developing countries have been important learning laboratories for the field, providing concrete examples and anecdotal lessons from experience, as well as intellectual leadership for a gender- and rights-focused approach to CSE.  At the same time, it is hard to change policies and resource allocation without evidence of impact.

NGOs have the flexibility and—in the case of IWHC partners—the political clarity and commitment to carry out useful qualitative research. For example, organizations can assess programs through classroom observation, teacher and student interviews, and by analyzing the content of curricula. For assessing curricula, there are online instruments, such as UNESCO’s SERAT, and IPPF’s Inside & Out, which are based on the Population Council’s curriculum It’s All One. NGOs can also bring human stories—about young people and about educators—to the advocacy table, as a complement to quantitative evidence. For example, the Nigerian organization Action Health, Inc. produced a series of compelling profiles of out-of-school girls reached by a small project, which includes CSE along with other services, to help advocate for increased attention to this vulnerable group.

SW: Can you tell us more about the kinds of questions NGOs could help to answer?

DR: There are numerous questions where anecdotal experiences, small-scale qualitative research, and case studies could help guide thinking. One important question is: How might CSE advance other educational goals? In many countries, Ministries of Education have established learning standards that include critical thinking, interpersonal skills, or concepts such as equality and nondiscrimination. NGOs can document how CSE curricula align with these standards. Also important is what role these programs might play in advancing a safer school environment, by identifying safety issues and perhaps leading to the development of a safe schools policy.

Another topic is teacher preparation: NGOs could look at what happens when teacher-training programs get teachers thinking about gender, power, and rights—including in their own lives. This is a matter of training content, but also of its duration.

Organizations can document particularly effective activities. For example, the Abriendo Oportunidades program in Guatemala reported little success engaging girls in thinking about human rights until they had them imagine they were on a previously deserted island, creating the rules for a whole new society. With that, the girls were able to start naming their rights, starting with their right to shoes!

Finally, there are questions pertinent to advocacy work. In some settings, might an equality or human rights framework generate less resistance than a sexuality framework? Imagine a program that explicitly addresses gender norms, power and relationships, human rights, and critical thinking, as well as sexual health and rights. Might this approach get us farther, not only by reducing opposition in some contexts, but also by raising a program’s ambitions?  Of course, this goes beyond the question of evaluation. It’s a matter of what we value and what we are aiming to achieve.

One response to “Can Sexuality Education Achieve Outcomes Beyond Improved Health? Evidence, Ideas, and a Research Role for NGOs‬

  1. Great interview about the power of CSE’s to change the lives of girls and women. Many areas begging for more implementation and study.

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