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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.

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