Robyn Dayton is an Associate Technical Officer at FHI where she works on the research utilization portfolio of youth reproductive and sexual health activities.

I had an opportunity recently to travel to Bogotá, Colombia for the UNFPA Global Consultation on Sexuality Education.  The meeting covered a range of topics, from what works in sexuality education to how to advocate for comprehensive sex ed with national governments.  There were attendees from Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab states, Latin America, Eastern and Western Europe, and the United States.  Everyone shared their successes and stumbling blocks on the path to ensuring that young people all over the world have the information they need to make safe and healthy choices in their reproductive lives and beyond.

A few key ideas really stood out to me.  First, there was an emphasis on gender throughout the conference.  All acknowledged that if gender isn’t addressed explicitly, young men and women are less likely to be able to use the information they learn in sexuality education programs or classes.  But if we help young people recognize and question gender norms – like “real men are aggressive and don’t take no for an answer,” and “women should be passive and not question men’s authority” – they are more capable of engaging their partners in delaying sex or practicing safe sex. 

Another important point frequently raised at the meeting: if you don’t measure it, it doesn’t count.  It can be difficult to determine what young people gain from sexuality education if we only measure behavioral outcomes like delayed sexual initiation.  We need to think more broadly.  Improving students’ ability to think about complicated concepts like gender constructs also builds critical thinking skills, which improves a student’s overall performance.  Thus, measurements of academic performance generally could be used to indicate the success of sexuality education programs. Another factor to consider is how students engage in sex – is it coerced, transactional, forced, consensual?  The context in which young people have sex affects their mental and physical health and is another indicator of the success of sex education.  If we aren’t collecting information on these kinds of indicators, we’re missing the bigger picture.

Which relates to the final point that I took away from the meeting – sexuality education isn’t only about preventing poor health outcomes.  We need to move away from the idea that sexuality education is just another weapon in the fight to curb HIV.  It is that, but it’s so much more.  Sexuality education gives young people tools to think about themselves and their sexuality, to understand and respect their changing bodies and emotions (and those of their peers), and to mature into healthy and satisfied adults.  Our sexuality should not be viewed simply as a risk factor for contracting diseases, and the meeting emphasized that we all have the right to understand and feel comfortable with ourselves as sexual beings and as people generally.

A full meeting report will be made available in January.  So check back because we’ll be posting the link!