Comprehensive sexuality education

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Overview

Every young person will one day have life-changing decisions to make about their sexual and reproductive health. Yet research shows that the majority of adolescents lack the knowledge required to make those decisions responsibly, leaving them vulnerable to coercion, sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy.

Comprehensive sexuality education enables young people to make informed decisions about their sexuality and health. These programmes build life skills and increase responsible behaviours, and because they are based on human rights principles, they help advance human rights, gender equality and the empowerment of young people.

UNFPA works with governments to implement comprehensive sexuality education, both in schools and through community-based training and outreach. UNFPA also promotes policies for, and investment in, sexuality education programmes that meet internationally agreed standards.

A demonstration of male and female condoms. ©Ollivier Girard

What is comprehensive sexuality education?

Comprehensive sexuality education enables young people to make informed decisions about their sexuality. It is taught over several years, introducing age-appropriate information consistent with the evolving capacities of young people. It includes scientifically accurate, curriculum-based information about human development, anatomy and pregnancy. It also includes information about contraception and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV. And it goes beyond information, to encourage confidence and improved communication skills. Curricula should also address the social issues surrounding sexuality and reproduction, including cultural norms, family life and interpersonal relationships. 

Human rights issues, gender equality and gender roles should be integrated into every aspect of these discussions. This includes human rights protection, fulfilment and empowerment; the impact of gender discrimination; the importance of equality and gender-sensitivity; and the ideas underlying gender roles. Sexual abuse, gender-based violence and harmful practices should also be discussed. Taken together, all this information teaches young people the life skills necessary to assume responsibility for their own behaviour and to respect the rights of others.

A matter of human rights

The sexual and reproductive choices of young people can have a cascading effect on their human rights. Adolescent pregnancy, for example, can lead girls to drop out of school, which deprives them of their right to education. Lack of understanding about gender equality can lead to discrimination and other human rights concerns.

The importance of sexuality education has been recognized by numerous international agreements. The Programme of Action of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development calls on governments to provide sexuality education, specifying that such education should take place both in schools and at the community level, be age-appropriate, begin as early as possible, foster mature decision-making and aim to eliminate gender inequality.

The rights to education and health are also embedded in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and are elaborated in the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to education, among other human rights documents. Human rights conventions also show the interrelatedness between sexual health problems, such as STIs and HIV, and human rights violations, such as violence. They clarify that comprehensive sexuality education should address both concerns.

Essential and effective

Numerous studies show that curricula providing accurate information about condoms and contraception can lead to reductions in the risky behaviours reported by young people. A number of evaluations also show reductions in unintended pregnancies and STIs. By contrast, programmes that teach only abstinence have not been shown to be effective.

A 2010 review found that “gender-focused” curricula – meaning curricula that integrate gender equality into the learning material – were substantially more effective in reducing risky behaviours than programmes that did not consider gender. Further research shows that young people who adopt egalitarian attitudes about gender roles are more likely to delay sexual initiation, use condoms and practice contraception. They also have lower rates of STIs, including HIV, and unintended pregnancy, and they are less likely to be in violent relationships.

By emphasizing rights and gender issues, these programmes help reduce gender-based violence and bullying, promote safe schools, empower young people to advocate for their own rights, and advance gender equality.

Key facts

  1. Comprehensive sexuality education does not lead to earlier sexual activity or riskier sexual behaviour
  2. These programmes reduce risky behaviours: About 62 per cent of programmes had a positive effect on at least one behavioural or biological outcome, such as increased condom use or reduced unplanned pregnancies
  3. About two thirds of evaluations show reductions in targeted risky behaviours
  4. Studies of abstinence-only programmes are either inconclusive or show abstinence-only education to be ineffective
  5. What we teach matters, but so is how we teach
  6. Addressing gender and power also leads to better health outcomes

What is UNFPA doing?

UNFPA works with governments and partners to develop and implement comprehensive sexuality education programmes that meet international technical standards and commitments. UNFPA also advocates for policies on and investments in comprehensive sexuality education, both in and out of schools.

Out-of-school programmes include community-based training and education, often aimed at the young people most in need of information – such as married adolescent girls, homeless youth, migrants and refugees, youth in remote rural areas, and those living in conflict zones. In many countries without in-school sexuality education, UNFPA supports the Y-PEER programme, a peer-to-peer youth network connecting more than 500 organizations in more than 50 countries. The programme uses a combination of experiential learning methods, ‘edutainment’, social media and new technologies to convey information to young people.

UNFPA also monitors and evaluates these programmes, and disseminates best practices, strengthening the quality and reach of sexuality education. In 2010, for example, UNFPA conducted a review of sexuality education programmes in 14 countries, which indicated that there are well-functioning programmes in Argentina, Colombia, Guatemala and Mozambique, with strong school-based programmes in Cambodia, Cote D’Ivoire, India, Indonesia, Jamaica, Malawi and Uzbekistan. Three countries, Egypt, Nepal and Ukraine, relied on peer-education activities or small-scale adult-led programmes.

Highly successful examples include Mozambique’s ‘Geração Biz’, or Busy Generation, which reaches approximately 5 million young people. In Colombia, UNFPA supported a programme that reached more than 1,000 schools and trained 3,800 teachers within four years of its 2005 launchIn Indonesia, UNFPA worked with partners, teachers and young people to develop locally appropriate teaching manuals, and partnered with local organizations to provide HIV prevention programmes. And in Uzbekistan, UNFPA supports in-school and out-of-school activities, training for teachers, and the award-winning national Y-PEER network.