During adolescence, many young people approach adulthood faced with conflicting, negative and confusing messages about sexuality and reproductive health and rights. This is exacerbated by embarrassment and silence from adults, particularly parents and teachers. As a result, youth lack the skills and knowledge to make informed life-changing decisions about their bodies, and suffer the consequences of poorly informed choices.
This is why Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) is so important – a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality as well as principles such as gender equality and human rights.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) hosted its 6th Generation-to-Generation dialogue on the topic ‘Delivering Comprehensive Sexuality Education – Whose Role Is It?’, in partnership with the Ministry of Education. The event included a debate by young people on the role of teachers and parents in delivering CSE. This served as an active reminder that both teachers and parents share equal responsibility, and that without the support of either, young people are not able to obtain accurate information relating to their sexual and reproductive health and rights at a critical age.
In her welcome remarks, UNFPA Representative in Sri Lanka, Ms. Ritsu Nacken, said, “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. Yet, in Sri Lanka nearly 50% of young people are unaware about basic sexual and reproductive issues, where only 35% of girls are aware that using a condom may prevent pregnancy. Teachers and parents must not shy away from providing accurate life-changing information to young people. Global research shows that CSE does not trigger an early onset of sexual activities; it actually does the opposite.”
To understand the current context of delivering sexuality education in Sri Lanka, the Ministry of Education, with support from UNFPA, commissioned an island-wide study on the ‘Analysis, of Knowledge and Attitudes of School Children’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Education’. Nearly 300 schools were included in the study, with over 4,400 respondents of students, principals, teachers, and parents. The study was conducted by Prof. K Karunatilaka, Senior Professor of Sociology (Chair), University of Kelaniya.
Presenting the findings of the study, Prof. Karunatilaka said, “Many teachers refused to respond to questions relating to sexual and reproductive health information being part of the school curriculum. The low response-rate from teachers also provided valid input into the study on the stigmatization of this important topic. Findings also revealed that 50% of teachers had not participated in any sexual and reproductive health training programmes, yet nearly 90% said they need to develop the skills and ability to teach sexuality education without shame.”
Based on the study by Prof. Karunatilaka and other available data, UNFPA developed a policy brief providing policy-level recommendations with the aim of strengthening delivery of age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education in Sri Lanka, in line with international guidelines. The policy brief was also launched at the event, followed by an inter-generational dialogue, which comprised of an international expert, a teacher, parent, student, principal, medical officer, and was moderated by UNFPA Assistant Representative, Ms. Madu Dissanayake.
As the international expert in the panel, Ms Sivanthani Thanenthiran, Executive Director, Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW), Malaysia, stated, “The right of access to comprehensive sexuality education is grounded in fundamental human rights. It is a means to empower young people to protect their health, well-being and dignity. We must make an active effort to ensure every young person receives this life-saving education from all avenues, may it be at school, at home, or from society at large.”
Since 2015, UNFPA has facilitated inter-generational dialogues on pertinent issues to collectively voice and hear the opinions of three generations, with the aim of contributing towards policy-level change. The discussions are based on data to drive evidence-based policy-making, contributing towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.