UN Launches Updated Guidance on Sexuality Education


  • Guidance from six global agencies stresses that sexuality education programs must be grounded in human rights principles and in scientific evidence
  • First update of technical guidance on sexuality education in 10 years, will be used worldwide
  • Evidence shows sexuality education programs that focus on gender or power are more effective than “gender-blind” versions
  • Current programs must do more than educate about reproduction, risk, and disease
  • IWHC works with grantee partners in more than 8 countries to ensure young people have access to these education programs

At a time when extremists in many parts of the world seek to deny young people access to life-saving information and services, the United Nations (UN) has issued newly updated guidance to help governments, school administrators, youth workers, teachers, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) develop and implement comprehensive sexuality education programs. The Guidance is a call to all who care about the lives of young people and their futures to fight to ensure that young people, especially the most vulnerable, have the information and skill they need to realize their rights, be free of violence, and protect their health.

Challenges Facing Young People Today

Produced by the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO), in collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UN Women, UNAIDS, and the World Health Organization (WHO), the newly updated International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education highlights the challenges young people face today: In some communities, two out of three girls start menstruating without understanding what is happening to their bodies. Some 90 percent of births to adolescents in the Global South take place within marriage. At a global level, only 34 percent of young people can explain how to prevent HIV transmission. Studies show that approximately 20 per cent of women and 5 to 10 percent of men say they were sexually abused as children.

Read the New Guidelines Recently Published by UNESCO

In this context, children and adolescents everywhere want and need information about their health and their rights, and the skills to be safe and to respect others. Parents often are unwilling to talk to their children about sexual health and rights, and frequently are poorly prepared to do so. Meanwhile, the Guidance points out that social media and the Internet, which can offer helpful resources for young people, also spread inaccuracies and promote harmful images, including gender stereotypes and violence.

Nearly 10 years after its initial publication, the 2018 version of the Technical Guidance presents important new evidence to make the case for sexuality education programs, as well as to define essential content and approaches. Drawing on research demonstrating that programs focused on gender are more effective than those that are “gender-blind” at reducing rates of unintended pregnancies or sexually-transmitted infections, the Guidance stresses the importance of addressing social norms on gender and sexuality. It increases the number of “key concepts” from six to eight, with separate sections on “Understanding Gender” and “Violence and Staying Safe,” both of which had been sub-topics only in the earlier edition.

Positive Approach to Sexuality

The new version takes a more positive approach to sexuality. One of the “key ideas” for the 15-18+ age group includes the notion that “engaging in sexual behaviours should feel pleasurable” and masturbation is presented as not uncommon starting in puberty and as non-harmful. The Guidance uses the term “comprehensive sexuality education (CSE)” and offers a framework for understanding sexuality as a social construct, linked to power: “The ultimate boundary of power is the possibility of controlling one’s own body. CSE can address the relationship between sexuality, gender and power, and its political and social dimensions.”

Education Grounded in Human Rights Principles

In addition to identifying the centrality of gender norms and power, the new Guidance stresses that comprehensive sexuality education programs must be grounded in human rights principles and in scientific evidence. It should be age appropriate and start at a young age (the Guidance provides recommendations on learning objectives for ages 5-8, 9-12, 12-15 and 15-18), curriculum-based, and learner-focused, “providing learners with opportunities to explore and nurture positive values and attitudes towards SRH, and to develop self-esteem and respect for human rights and gender equality.” While not as strong as it could be, the document stresses the importance of protecting LGBTI youth from discrimination and violence, for example, stating that: “Violence based on sexual orientation and gender identities/expression, also referred to as homophobic and transphobic violence, is a form of school-related gender-based violence.”

While it is heartening to see the strengthened attention to human rights and to reducing gender inequality as critical to health and other life outcomes for young people, the new Guidance sometimes takes an oblique approach to gender, obscuring specific discrimination and socially imposed limitations that girls face. For example, under the learning objectives for “decision-making,” there is little mention of the constraints girls experience because of social norms and power differences in relationships, families, communities and societies.

The Guidance offers also extensive content on violence, but separates “gender-based violence” (GBV) and “violence” into two different modules, which is conceptually confusing. Treating violence, including sexual and intimate partner violence, apart from GBV undermines comprehension of violence as a manifestation and instrument of gender inequality, and a deployment of power to maintain intimidation, subordination, and exploitation of girls and non-binary people.

The Guidance goes further than previously by recognizing that “adolescent girls suffer a significant and disproportionate share of deaths and disability from unsafe abortion practices,” but falls short on providing specific information about abortion that young people need—for example, that it is safe when provided by trained practitioners and that post-abortion care is always legal. Instead, it posits adoption as a viable alternative, a position that is certainly not appropriate for programs aimed at young girls, who should not be expected to carry out an unwanted pregnancy.

Current Programs Must Do More

The Guidance stresses that comprehensive sexuality programs must do much more than educate about reproduction, risk, and disease. These programs can help young people to develop self-confidence, build stronger and more equitable relationships, and feel good about their bodies, sexualities, and identities. These programs can contribute to broader outcomes, like reducing rates of gender-based violence and discrimination toward LGBTQI people.

The Guidance emphasizes that participatory methodologies are most effective in ensuring that children and young people understand and internalize learning objectives, and stresses the need for teacher training and support. It points out that schools offer an important opportunity to reach young people and provide an infrastructure, with the potential to link to other support systems, like health services. Yet school-based programs will not reach everyone. Sexuality education programs in community settings can reach those out-of-school and can be especially important for reaching marginalized and vulnerable youth, like the disabled, those living with HIV, LGBTQI young people, and the very poor. Furthermore, school-based programs are best complemented by the availability of youth-centered, non-discriminatory health services, and parental involvement.

IWHC Partners Put Guidance into Action

IWHC supports partners in Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Pakistan, India, Egypt, Peru, and other countries who are putting into action the principles and practices the Guidance promotes. They develop school materials and curricula, carry out teacher training, work with young people—especially girls—directly in communities, and advocate with governments for comprehensive sexuality education. We are thrilled to see the UN state loudly and clearly that these programs work and are necessary to help ensure that children and young people become adults in a world in which their human rights are respected, no one experiences violence or discrimination based on gender or sexuality, and all people can experience healthy and pleasurable sexual lives.

Read the Full Document Online: International technical guidance on sexuality education: an evidence-informed approach; 2018

Photo: IWHC / Adil Hussain

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