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The Lifesaving Power of Sex Education

A quarter-century ago, at the International Conference on Population and Development, 179 governments pledged to provide information to help young people make “responsible” decisions about sex and sexuality. It is time to implement that pledge, by giving teens the information and safe spaces they need.

NEW YORK – When I was a bright-eyed eighth grader in my native Sri Lanka, I couldn’t wait for my first sex education class. In our early teens, my classmates and I were as curious as we were clueless about sex and sexuality. Yet, instead of receiving reliable answers to pressing questions about our bodies, relationships, and sexuality, we were simply handed a book, told to read a particular chapter, and left to figure things out on our own. Millions of young people around the world have similar experiences, often with serious adverse consequences.

Just as it would be irresponsible to give a child a sports car without teaching them how to drive, it is dangerously negligent to allow young people’s bodies to develop faster than their understanding of sex and sexuality. Lack of reliable information increases the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) – including HIV – and teenage pregnancy, which can not only cost the life of the mother, the child, or both, but also perpetuate poverty across generations.

Even for those who are not sexually active, understanding the changes happening to their bodies is vital to protect their health and wellbeing. In many places, girls begin menstruating without knowing what is happening, leaving them unprepared to protect their health and hygiene – and often experiencing deep shame over a perfectly natural process.

This lack of information – together with the absence of clean sanitary products and private spaces to use them – often leads girls and young women to miss school while menstruating. Cultural taboos that sanction barring women and girls from public (including religious) spaces during their period, or that even force them to live outside their homes (including in extreme weather) because they are “impure,” compound their sense of shame and the associated risks to their health.

Young people cannot be blamed for making uninformed decisions if adults refuse to inform them. Yet it is young people who suffer the consequences of those decisions, often for the rest of their lives. I saw this happen firsthand: girls who were in that classroom with me the day we were told to “figure out” our sexuality became pregnant soon after, left school, and lost any chance to escape poverty.

Why are schools all over the world failing to offer comprehensive sex education? Often, the answer is that adults fear that such education encourages promiscuity. According to this logic, those who “know better” – such as parents or doctors – should be the ones making the decisions.

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Contrary to the popular misconception that sex education encourages promiscuity and spurs teenage pregnancies, better education merely improves the odds that the sex teenagers have will be safe sex, resulting in lower STI and pregnancy rates, and higher female education rates. This has far-reaching benefits, from health to gender equality and poverty reduction.

This is not a new insight. A quarter-century ago, at the groundbreaking International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, 179 governments pledged to provide information to help youth make “responsible” decisions. According to the ICPD’s Program of Action, education about sexuality is critical to protect adolescents from STIs and unwanted pregnancies, especially at a very young age, when risks are particularly high for mother and baby.

Since then, much progress has been made. But, with 20,000 girls younger than 18 giving birth every day, mostly in developing countries with dismal access to sexual and reproductive health information, it is clearly nowhere near enough.

Enabling young people to make responsible choices about their bodies and sexuality requires delivering comprehensive sex education to all, in a youth-friendly way that respects their agency and autonomy. This means creating safe spaces, where they can access contraceptives or ask questions, without fear that their family or friends will find out. That is the message of the United Nations Population Fund’s new youth strategy, called “My Body, My Life, My World.”

This November, for the 25th anniversary of the ICPD, a high-level conference will be held in Nairobi, Kenya, to mobilize the political will and financial resources needed to implement fully the ICPD Program of Action. World leaders should come prepared with concrete commitments that show that this time, they’re serious about ensuring that young people everywhere are empowered to make informed choices about their bodies, their lives, and their futures.

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