Prioritizing education in the Millennium Development Goals has led to important gains in enrolment numbers in many countries, but delivering quality education remains a challenge.
Quality education should not only entail equipping young people with a solid academic foundation and relevant skills for securing future employment and economic security, it should also empower them with the knowledge and skills to navigate the passage into adulthood and prepare them for life’s opportunities, challenges and potential risks.
As such, the definition and practice of quality education should include comprehensive sexuality education as an essential component.
Comprehensive sexuality education, both in an out of school, is part of the basic ‘life literacy’ that all young people require. Most people, in all countries, will be sexually active at some point in their life, and it is crucial for their human rights, health, personal development and even their education and employment outcomes, to understand sexuality, make informed decisions about relationships, and to plan their lives. Comprehensive sexuality education should be rights-based, tailored according to age group, addressing the psychological, emotional, social and gender aspects of sexuality, as well as the physical, biological and health aspects. This knowledge should aim to empower young people to make informed decisions that enhance their self-esteem and protect them from unwanted outcomes, such as HIV, sexually transmitted infections, early and unwanted pregnancy, and coercion, violence and abuse, through building decision-making, communication and risk-reduction skills about all aspects of sexuality.
In many countries, the ad hoc, piecemeal, inadequate – and even non-existent – provision of sexuality education leaves young people at risk of detrimental consequences. Currently, five million young people are living with HIV/AIDS, yet only about 36% of young men and 24% of young women know how to prevent its spread. As a result of limited sexuality education and sexual and reproductive health services for this age group, globally, 1 in 5 girls become pregnant before they are 18. Not only can this thwart the possibilities of them finishing school and eventually securing a decent livelihood, it also threatens their health and well-being. Pregnancy and child-birth complications are the leading cause of death for adolescent girls in low and middle-income countries—with 50,000 dying every year; and girls 15 to 19 years old undergo an estimated 3 million unsafe abortions annually, often with life-threatening consequences. Educating young people with accurate knowledge and skills, while providing them with youth-friendly, quality sexual and reproductive health services, including access to male and female condoms and modern contraception, can help them prevent these avoidable problems, and enjoy an alternative path to a better quality of life, in good health and with improved prospects for education and employment.
Comprehensive sexuality education is a critical opportunity to educate boys and girls, young men and women, about gender equality and ending gender-based violence, by fostering positive gender norms, values and behaviors. Addressing discrimination and violence directly in this setting can empower both boys and girls to treat themselves and each other with respect and dignity. More broadly, any comprehensive sexuality education programme or curriculum must integrate a gender perspective and be sensitive to sexual and gender diversity.
The UN System has formulated important guidelines to support the development of high-quality comprehensive sexuality education programmes, in particular the International Technical Guidance on sexuality education developed by UNESCO, WHO, UNAIDS Secretariat, UNFPA and UNICEF which offers useful guidance for States and partners. To ensure that comprehensive sexuality education programs are quality, appropriate and impactful requires effective, transparent and participatory accountability mechanisms to monitor their implementation and the outcomes for young people. Such mechanisms must ensure the effective participation of young people in the design, implementation and evaluation of curricula and lesson plans, and programs and policies should be adapted to take into account evaluation results and allow for the possibility of adjustments in response to changing dynamics.
Empowering young people to make informed decisions about their sexuality, act responsibly and protect themselves is not only a matter of human rights, but also an important catalyst for the achievement of other development goals, including poverty reduction, health, education and economic growth. For example, enabling young people to prevent HIV will help avert the associated disease burden and loss of productivity that hinders growth in especially affected countries and communities. Girls able to delay pregnancy are more likely to avoid health consequences of early childbirth, go further in school, and generate better earnings for themselves and any future children. Healthier, better educated women are more likely to raise healthy, better educated children if they become parents.
The international community has a critical opportunity to build on recent achievements by addressing the challenge in providing quality education. A key component to ensuring that education truly prepares the largest generation of young people the world has ever known with meaningful knowledge to build a quality life for themselves, as well as their families, communities and nations, is the implementation of comprehensive sexuality education in and outside of school, linked to quality sexual and reproductive health services. It is an investment that will continue to deliver gains to young people, now and for generations to come.