The Right to Sex Education
If you were asked to name the world’s most developed countries, the UK or US would probably be among the first to come to mind. Yet recent government actions in both countries suggest serious failures to meet one of the most fundamental requirements of development.
In the UK, a clause that would have made sex education a mandatory requirement of the school curriculum was dropped from the Children, Schools and Families Bill, in order to get the bill passed in the pre-election ‘wash-up’ period (when legislation is rushed through parliament with cross-party support) (1). In the US, President Obama’s healthcare bill commits $250 million of funding over five years to abstinence-only sex ‘education’ programmes (2).
Sex education is always a difficult subject: for teachers, parents and students. In particular, parents often experience real discomfort at the idea of their children being taught about sex. Some irresponsible media reporting plays on and exacerbates parents’ fears, with headlines referring to “compulsory sex lessons at age five” (3). These fears are unfounded and such headlines are not just irresponsible but deliberately misleading. Nobody wants to prematurely take away children’s innocence. In reality, the only aim of sex education is to ensure young people know how to stay safe and protect themselves.
Sex education is not only necessary for the well being of young people; it is also a necessary feature of a society that is developing. As the world entered a new millennium, the international community came together to set eight goals to guide global development and improve our societies. The sixth of these Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is “to halt and begin to reverse the spread of HIV” (4). This goal is partly assessed by measuring the “proportion of population aged 15-24 years with comprehensive, correct knowledge of HIV/AIDS” (5). Success in increasing this proportion can only be achieved through providing all young people with adequate sex education. The recent actions taken by the UK and US governments will only serve to limit the proportion of young people with this knowledge.
As this graph shows, young people are disproportionately affected by sexually transmitted infections. Failure to provide adequate sex education only exacerbates this. Sex education is not only necessary for health and to meet the MDGs – it is also a human right. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognises the “right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” (6). The Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children have the right not only to the highest possible standard of health, but also to access information and be supported in using knowledge to protect their health (7). These rights cannot be realised when young people are not provided with the information they need to protect themselves.
There is a need to respect the values and beliefs of parents. But it is the values and beliefs, and more importantly, the choices, of young people themselves that must be given primacy. If young people are denied access to sex education, where will they turn for information? The media? TV? Porn? It is better for everyone that education on sex and sexual health takes place in the classroom, where information is quality-controlled and incorporates all the facts young people need to have access to.
HIV is a serious public health issue in both the UK and US. There are an estimated 83,000 people living with HIV in the UK, 27% of whom are unaware of their positive status (8). In the US there are 1.2 million positive people (9). If young people are denied access to factual, impartial and judgement-free sex education, these figures will only increase. If young people are not provided with adequate sex education, public health suffers. Development is stopped and human rights violated.
Jacqui Stevenson is a guest blogger for YPHR and is currently studying for a Masters degree in Understanding and Securing Human Rights at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, with HIV as her research focus. She is an intern for the Sophia Forum (sophiaforum.net), an organisation campaigning for increased awareness and understanding of women’s sexual health, and for the rights of women living with HIV to be realised. She has also previously worked in Kenya, where she established an HIV education and peer-to-peer training project as part of a rural community project.