Robyn Dayton is a technical officer at FHI where she works on the research utilization portfolio of youth reproductive and sexual health activities. 

If there were an intervention that helped young people protect themselves from STIs, HIV, and unplanned pregnancy, while increasing the chances that they will grow up to be adults with healthy and fulfilling sex lives, would it be made widely available? 

Since there is such an intervention – sexuality education – this isn’t a theoretical question.  But in many places, the answer is flatly no.  In these locations, a desire to protect future generations is outweighed by the fear that openly discussing sex, including the prevention of some of its harmful consequences, would cause more young people to engage in sexual activity.

What if the intervention were proven not to increase sexual activity or risky sexual behaviors, but instead to delay sexual debut and increase the use of safer sexual practices – would that be enough to assuage any fears and ensure access worldwide?

Again, a look at the response to the evidence on sexuality education leads to an answer of “no, it’s not enough.”  Issues of sexuality, and especially youth sexuality, are so contentious that even data from randomized controlled trials doesn’t carry enough weight to counter strongly held beliefs and visceral reactions.

But what if access to that intervention was considered a human right?

Here, we move to the theoretical, but not for long, as it is an answer that the world is in the process of finding out.

In a July 2010 report, Vernor Muñoz, Special Rapporteur on the right to education to the United Nations, unequivocally proclaimed that sexuality education is a right. 

In the report, he addresses why sexuality education, and specifically comprehensive sexuality education, should be offered to all.  He states that the already established right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health “obviously includes sexual health” and that achieving this standard is “possible only if we receive comprehensive sexual education from the outset of our schooling and throughout the educational process.”  He also describes the right to sexuality education as “both a human right in itself and an indispensable means of realizing other human rights.” 

In terms of comprehensive sexuality education, he notes that sexuality education cannot be reduced to reproduction and that there is “no valid excuse for not providing people with the comprehensive sexual education that they need in order to lead a dignified and healthy life. Enjoyment of the right to sexual education plays a crucial preventive role and may be a question of life or death.”

Additionally, he grounds this right in several international conventions, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Whether the Special Rapporteur’s report will make a difference in how widely sexuality education is made available remains to be seen. 

What I can say at present is that his well-chosen words have reminded me not only how important sexuality education is for young people but also the daily injustice being done when they are unable to access it.   

Read the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Comprehensive Sexual Education.