The right of access to comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) is grounded in fundamental human rights and is a means to empower young people to protect their health, well-being and dignity.
This Operational Guidance sets out UNFPA’s framework for CSE, which is one of five prongs to UNFPA’s Adolescent and Youth Strategy. It is also linked with the other four prongs, which are focused on: evidenced-based advocacy for development, investment and implementation; building capacity for sexual and reproductive health service delivery, including HIV prevention, treatment and care; bold initiatives to reach the most vulnerable; and youth leadership and participation.
1.2 CSE Definition and Guiding Principles In alignment with the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Programme of Action, the Commission on Population and Development (CPD)–CPD 2009, Resolution 2009/1, para 7; CPD 2012,Resolution 2012/1, para 26 and UNESCO’s International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education (ITGSE), among other international agreements, UNFPA defines “comprehensive sexuality education” as a right-based and gender-focused approach to sexuality education, whether in school or out of school. CSE is curriculum-based education that aims to equip children and young people with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that will enable them to develop a positive view of their sexuality, in the context of their emotional and social development. By embracing a holistic vision of sexuality and sexual behaviour, which goes beyond a focus on prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), CSE enables children and young people to:
- Acquire accurate information about human sexuality, sexual and reproductive health, and human rights, including about: sexual anatomy and physiology; reproduction, contraception, pregnancy and childbirth; sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS; family life and interpersonal relationships; culture and sexuality; human rights empowerment, nondiscrimination, equality and gender roles; sexual behaviour and sexual diversity; and sexual abuse, gender-based violence and harmful practices.
- Explore and nurture positive values and attitudes towards their sexual and reproductive health, and develop self-esteem, respect for human rights and gender equality. CSE empowers young people to take control of their own behaviour and, in turn, treat others with respect, acceptance, tolerance and empathy, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, race or sexual orientation.
- Develop life skills that encourage critical thinking, communication and negotiation, decision-making and assertiveness. These skills can contribute to better and more productive relationships with family members, peers, friends, and romantic or sexual partners. When CSE is started early, provided over time and involves all of the elements listed above, young people are more empowered to make informed decisions about their sexuality, including their sexual and reproductive health, and can develop the life skills necessary to protect themselves while respecting the rights of others. In various settings, sexuality education may go by other names – such as “life skills”, “family life” or “HIV” education or “holistic sexuality education”. These variations sometimes imply difference in content emphasis. For example, “life skills” may encompass a focus on caring for sick family members, coping with loss or locally salient issues.
- Respect for human rights and diversity, with sexuality education affirmed as a right
- Critical thinking skills, promotion of young people’s participation in decision-making, and strengthening of their capacities for citizenship
- Fostering of norms and attitudes that promote gender equality and inclusion
- Addressing vulnerabilities and exclusion
- Local ownership and cultural relevance
- A positive life-cycle approach to sexuality.
The Right to Comprehensive Sexuality Education: Policy and Legal Framework
The right to sexuality education is grounded in universal human rights – including the right to education and to health – as established in numerous international agreements, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Programme of Action explicitly calls on governments to provide education on sexuality in order to promote the well-being of adolescents and specifies key features of such education.1It clarifies that such education should take place both in schools and at the community level, be age-appropriate, begin as early as possible, foster mature decisionmaking, and specifically aim to ameliorate gender inequality. It further urges governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to ensure that such programmes address specific topics, among them gender relations and equality, violence against adolescents, responsible sexual behaviour, contraception, family life, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), HIV and AIDS prevention. In 1999, ICPD+5 reinforced and further specified the responsibility of governments to provide formal and non-formal sexual and reproductive health information as part of “promoting the well-being of adolescents, enhancing gender equality and equity as well as responsible sexual behaviour, and protecting them from early and unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS, and sexual abuse, incest and violence.”
In contrast, programmes that teach only abstinence have not proved to be effective. Moreover, reviews have identified a number of characteristics – for example, the importance of participatory pedagogy – that contribute to change. Other features that contribute to positive change when incorporated into sexuality education curricula include:
- Focusing on specific behaviours leading to identified goals
- Providing clear messages about behaviours and presenting information in a logical sequence
- Focusing on specific risks or protective factors that are amenable to change, and on situations that might lead to unwanted or unprotected sex, while enhancing protective skills and encouraging self-efficacy
- Addressing personal values, social norms and perceptions of risk. The desired outcomes of CSE programmes should be set clearly, based on and evaluated against solid evidence. Effectiveness should be measured against desired outcomes such as reduction in rates of unintended pregnancy, STIs and HIV, and in intimate partner violence; transformation of gender norms and advancement of gender equality more broadly; and empowerment of young people as global citizens who are able to advocate for their own rights.