Ecosystem of sexuality education: preparing teenagers for adult life

sexuality education HIV prevention and healthy lifestyle lessons

Why comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) should be taught in school? How and when should it be delivered and who can teach it? And how could the school and parents share the responsibility for talking to children about their psychological, social and physical development?

These and other issues were the focus of a discussion that took place on April 20th at the Moscow International Education Fair. Discussants included representatives of UNESCO, experts, teachers and adolescents.

Discussion headliners, Chris Castle, UNESCO Global Coordinator for HIV and AIDS, Chief of the Section of Health and Education at UNESCO HQs, and Tigran Yepoyan, UNESCO Regional HIV and Health Education Advisor for Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA), shared global and regional experiences of implementation of such programs and answered controversial questions that keep causing disputes among parents, teachers and policy makers.

Why should we talk about it?

In some countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA) one in five boys and and one in ten girls get their first sexual experience before the age of 15.* At the same time, throughout the world, complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the second leading cause of death among girls aged 15 to 19.** Every day in EECA region, 520 people contract HIV. But only 25% of young people aged 15 to 24 know how infection occurs and how to reduce the risk of transmission.***

Though there is significant evidence on the positive impact of sexuality education on sexual behaviour and health of young people, there are still many opponents among parents and teachers to school-based sexuality education. It is widely believed that discussions about growing-up, developing sexual relations and using contraception may increase teenagers’ interest in sex and encourage them to have their first sexual encounter too early. In addition, there are many concerns about the incompatibility of sexuality education with traditional values in some cultural and social contexts.

At the same time, research data shows that in countries where comprehensive sexuality education is delivered at schools, adolescents do not necessarily become sexually active early on, but they demonstrate a higher level of knowledge about HIV, STIs and contraception. In addition, it has been proven that CSE contributes to the reduction of unwanted pregnancies, STIs and gender-based violence.****

Today, sexuality education takes place in schools, in community settings, or online all over the world, including Mexico, Spain, Greece, Albania, Bulgaria and other countries where church has traditionally a high influence over social life and education. Often, sexuality education is a part of a larger life skills-based health education curricula. Elements of sexuality education can be incorporated into biology or social studies or other subjects, which discuss relationships, values, family life and child raising.

The evidence base and rationale for delivering comprehensive sexuality education to young people as well as recommended essential topics and learning objectives that should be covered in CSE curricula for all learners are well presented in the new revised version of the International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education. This guidance was developed by UNESCO together with five other UN agencies – UNAIDS, UNFPA, UN Women, UNICEF and WHO. It is based on facts, scientific evidence, provides examples of the best international practice and outlines approaches for planning, adapting to national contexts, delivering and monitoring CSE programmes.*****

According to Chris Castle, Chief of the Section of Health and Education at UNESCO HQs:

Comprehensive sexuality education aims to equip children and young people with evidence-informed knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that will empower them to realize their health, well-being and dignity; develop respectful social and sexual relationships; consider how their choices affect their own well-being and that of others; and understand and ensure the protection of their rights throughout their lives.

 Who should talk about sexuality education?

Family, school, peers and other sources of information (non-formal education, media, Internet, etc.) have a big influence on adolescents when it comes to shaping their understanding of adulthood, relationships, reproduction, health and well-being in general.

Parents are the first time educators on issues of sexual and interpersonal relationships. However, in many cases, they avoid talking with their children about love, relationships and reproduction due to various reasons. And teenagers too may feel uncomfortable and not be willing to discuss these topics with their parents.

“Adults can be educated to be ready to talk, but they do not always understand the agenda, they do not always understand what teenagers already know and what they are worried about,” explains Katerina Abramova, PR director of “Need Help” charitable foundation  that has recently launched an interactive movie “Everything is complicated” to raise adolescents’ awareness about HIV.

sexuality education for boys and girls
Photo by on Unsplash

At the same time, school provides an immense amount of knowledge and skills to children who spend there 11 years and experience one of the most difficult periods of their life – the transition from childhood to adulthood. “Critical thinking among teenagers is formed precisely at this time,” says Maxim Kostenko, Head of Altai Institute for Advanced Training in Education. Therefore, teachers play an important role in a child’s life. What kind of knowledge and skills teenagers will get or not get largely depends on teacher’s ability to deliver important information, talk openly and confidently and on his/her willingness to answer students’ questions without avoiding sensitive issues.

In what form should we talk about it (and should we at all)?

In many EECA countries, healthy lifestyle and health education are not part of the compulsory school curriculum. Discussions about sexual relationships, HIV and STI prevention can happen at homeroom classes or during biology or life safety lessons. However, it is not easy to conduct such lessons for teachers themselves: not all of them get relevant training in pedagogical universities; it can be difficult for them to design a good lesson plan and find interesting materials for it. Besides, teachers may have to deal with parent’s opposition to such lessons or have to overcome their own embarrassment.

“The problem is that at school learners are generally viewed as not yet grown up enough to talk to about intimate relationships”, continues Maxim Kostenko, “many teachers, especially those who find it stressful discussing this topic, have a good excuse for not doing it – children will grow and learn everything themselves.”

young people search for information online
Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

However, even for those teachers who have managed to overcome barriers and are willing to teach sexuality education it is still not easy: unlike algebra or chemistry, sexuality education entails social context and life experience, which is often very different for teachers and students. Grazhina Budinaite, psychotherapist, family psychologist and associate professor of Moscow Higher School of Economics,  believes that it is a natural situation: “For teachers it is difficult to act on two fronts – on the one hand, to be part of the hierarchical school system and, on the other hand, to speak to children on equal terms”.

While teachers face these challenges, adolescents increasingly demand sexuality education and want to learn about healthy lifestyles, reproductive health and ways to protect themselves in risky situations. “I would really like the teacher to talk to me on equal terms – not from his top position, not to read HIV and STIs definitions from his notes and then make us remember them as something unquestionable. I would like the teacher to be closer to the reality, where we all live now or at least try to follow it,” says Ksenia Kovalchuk, a 16-year old student.

“We spend more time at school than at home. Of course, it is important that teachers can speak the same language with us and instead of boring lectures and sometimes frankly unreliable information provide us with something really worthwhile. In fact, we trust what they tell us, sometimes even more than what parents tell us. Because they are professionals,” adds Anastasia Pustovoytenko, a 15-year old student.

Sexuality education in schools: so are there any solutions?

At the same time, not all teachers responsible for health and life skills education are adequately prepared for that. Many of them get acquainted with this learning area on the job “from the scratch” and often with the help of external resources. “Nowadays there is a very high threshold for teachers to access evidence-based, objective information about the best practices, especially foreign ones,” says Maxim Kostenko.

Katerina Abramova suggests paying attention to the channels that transmit information to the end users. “Neither family, nor school or other education providers can compete with social media, bloggers and other opinion leaders that adolescents rely on now […] Parents and teachers need to use the Internet more often and learn to speak to teenagers in their own language using jokes, pictures, short posts and videos”.

“After all, the involvement of all players – school, families, bloggers, psychologists and others – is the most important result, which we should strive for,” said Grazhina Budinaite. She underscored that it is impossible to shift all the responsibility for talking to teenagers about sexuality to just one player in this chain, as only systematic approach has an effect.

Tigran Yepoyan, UNESCO Regional HIV and Health Education Advisor:

“While there are no mandatory lessons on healthy lifestyle in the school curriculum, it is in our hands to create high-quality content for informal education and extra-curricular activities and provide it to teachers and students. It is within our reach to develop evidence-based programs for teacher training using modern materials and approaches to teaching and learning. And we shall continue working with parents to help them understand the benefits of sexuality education, learn the ways to talk to children about these issues and create demand and support for sexuality education at schools.”


* HSBC-2016
** International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education (ITGSE), UNESCO, 2018
*** UNAIDS, Fact Sheet 2017
Country progress reports
**** ITGSE, 2018.
***** The ITGSE is voluntary, based on the latest scientific evidence, and designed to support countries to implement effective sexuality education programmes adapted to their contexts.