Monday, August 31, 2009

Interview with the authors of International Guidelines for Sexuality Education

In June, UNESCO published a draft version of a new publication titled International Guidelines for Sexuality Education: An evidence informed approach to effective sex, relationships and HIV/STI education. The draft appears to have been quite well received internationally, although it appears to have raised some negative responses in conservative circles in the United States.

While the principle authors of the study, Nanette Ecker and Doug Kirby are Americans, the report is surely targetted to those making policy with respect to sexuality education in developing nations. In order to properly understand the report, one must consider the needs in those countries.

Sexual activity begins early quite often in developing countries, and often it is coerced. One recent study reports:
Using nationally representative surveys from 12-19 year old girls in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Malawi, and Uganda collected in 2004, we examine the prevalence of sexual coercion at sexual debut among unmarried girls and its correlates. In Malawi, 38 percent of girls said that they were “not willing at all” at their first sexual experience followed by Ghana at 30 percent, Uganda at 23 percent and Burkina Faso at 15 percent. In-depth interviews collected in 2003 with the same demographic shows that there are four primary types of sexual coercion: forced sex; pressure through money or gifts; flattery, pestering, and threatening to have sex with other girls; and passive acceptance.
According to UNAIDS, there are some 2.7 million new cases of HIV infection per year. About half occur in women, and there are an estimated 50 million women in Asia at risk of contracting HIV infection from the intimate partners. 370,000 of the new infections occur in children under the age of 15. In the United States we think of HIV as a disease that people can live with for a considerable period of time, albeit taking medication under physician care with the possiblity of side effects; in 2007, however, 2 million people died of AIDS.

The Office of Victims of Crime estimates that of the 600,000-800,000 people trafficked across international borders each year, 70 percent are female and 50 percent are children. Indeed, it is estimated that a million children are involved in the international sex trade. The majority of these victims are forced into the commercial sex trade. According to the UNESCO Trafficing Project, in Thailand, repeated surveys indicate that from one-third to one-half of all prostitutes started prostitution as children.

According to the 2009 World Report on Children, every year, more than half a million women die as a result of pregnancy or childbirth complications, including about 70,000 girls and young women aged 15 to 19. Women in the world's least developed countries are 300 times more likely to die in childbirth or from pregnancy-related complications than women in developed countries; a child born in a developing country is almost 14 times more likely to die during the first month of life than a child born in a developed one.

It would be criminal were educational policy makers in the countries where these problems are most accute not to consider sexuality education in the schools. Moreover, they must consider sexuality education at ages that appear quite young to most Americans.

UNESCO's 2009 EFA Global Monitoring Report states that 75 million children of primary school age are not in school, including just under one-third of the relevant age group in sub-Saharan Africa.
Girls are still neglected in education. Gender enrolment gaps remain large across much of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Disadvantages based on language, race, ethnicity and rural-urban differences also remain deeply entrenched. In Senegal, children in urban areas are twice as likely as those in rural areas to be in school.
In order to help policy makers, the authors of this report have summarized results from 87 international research studies (29 from developing countries) as well as input from experts in specialized NGOs and other UN agencies. Of course it is left to the policy makers to utilize the information to
derive age and culturally appropriate standards for their own schools.

Dr Doug Kirby is a Senior Research Scientist at Education, Training and Research Associates and Nanette Ecker is the former director of International Education and Training at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS).


John Daly said...

Steven Erlenger has an article in The New York Times (September 2, 2009) discussing this report, noting that the draft report has been pulled from the UNESCO website, and that the UNFPA has asked that its name and logo be removed from the report due to the angry response it has drawn from conservative communities, especially those in the United States.

I find the following to be the most objectionable aspect of the report: "A team of experts at Unesco has been working on the guidelines for two years, drawing on more than 80 studies of sex education, at a cost of about $350,000."

John Daly said...

There is a good article in Time magazine by Bruce Crumley titled "U.S. Conservatives Attack UNESCO's Sex Ed Guidelines" that discusses both the need for sex education and the strength of the opposition from the American conservative community to early sex education. The article notes the 111 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases reported among people aged 10 to 24 globally each year, and the 4.4 million abortions sought by women aged 15 to 19 annually.

The "conservative reaction to the UNESCO document seems to reflect a similar strategy to the one employed to fight President Barack Obama's proposed health reform. First, critics launched the debate before UNESCO has even finished its recommendations, which are based on analysis of 80 different studies of sex education programs. Second, they broadcast sensational accusations of the offending proposal's intent to better grab — and alarm — the public."