Comprehensive Sexuality Education is a Cornerstone of a Gender-Equal World

By: Ana Aguilera, Director, Adolescent and Youth Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights; Traci L. Baird, President and CEO; and Meskerem Setegne, Associate Project Director for A Rights-Based Approach for Enhancing SRHR in Ethiopia

Members of the SheDecides movement published an op-ed on Al Jazeera on April 28, 2023, titled Comprehensive sexuality education is the key to a better tomorrow. We need more, not less, comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), and we join our voices with those of researchers, advocates, educators, healthcare providers, policymakers, and young people around the world to call on increased attention to and resourcing of CSE as a critical component of our efforts to expand the health, rights, and equality of people around the world.

Six women sit in a semi-circle. One woman speaks into a microphone.

In early March, in a room full of supporters, a panel of government officials, United Nations agency representatives, youth advocates, and program leaders called us to action to protect and advance CSE. Participants at this Achieving Gender Equality Through Comprehensive Sexuality Education event, co-hosted by the SheDecides movement and the Global Partnership Forum on Comprehensive Sexuality Education, agreed that CSE is a foundational component of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).

We must prioritize and advance CSE because the evidence of its positive impact is irrefutable. CSE increases young people’s knowledge, reduces their sexual risk-taking behavior and STI/HIV infection rates, delays their sexual initiation, and decreases their number of sexual partners.

At EngenderHealth, we know that CSE does so much more than decrease risky behaviors. It can be a game-changer because when it is truly gender and youth transformative, it can support young people in acquiring crucial life skills that improve their ability to communicate and navigate risky situations, increase their overall health and wellbeing, and promote gender-equitable attitudes and norms from a very young age. This is a cornerstone of the gender-equal world we wish to achieve.

When youth do not have the knowledge, access to CSE, or the respect they deserve and cannot make their own choices about their bodies and their futures, including their educational aspirations, we all lose out. We must invest in scaling CSE programs that enable young people explore gender and sexuality, help them make decisions about their SRHR, and support them to engage as active participants and leaders in their communities.

EngenderHealth’s activities with young people and CSE are varied and include supporting teachers leading school-based programs as well as peer educators outside of the classroom and using sports and play to share information about SRHR with youth through fun and games. We embed a gender- and youth-transformative approach in all our activities and involve young people as peer educators, advisors, facilitators, and active participants—not only as recipients of information.

A group of students stand together holding up signs.

One example is the A Rights-Based Approach for Enhancing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Project in Ethiopia, where we strengthened the capacity and facilitation skills of biology teachers to deliver SRH information within the existing school curriculum and support school health clinics as well as gender and health clubs to increase access to CSE.

We know that increasing access to CSE among young people and the key influencers in their lives is important; the adolescents taking part in the program told us so. Some of the young people who participated shared:   

“During the life skill [Aflateen] training, the teachers were very open, and we were allowed to ask any questions we might have without any judgment. I now have the knowledge on the health risks of engaging in sexual relationships at an early age.”

Dibora, 17-year-old, grade 11 student

“Engaging in our school’s gender club and taking the AYiC [Aflateen Youth in Charge] training improved my knowledge on reproductive health and my communication skills; I used to be very quiet and alone in the school, now I am making friends and socializing.”

Ezra, 16-year-old, grade 10 student

A critical first step toward improving school-level implementation of CSE is teacher training and support, along with the distribution of materials that are responsive to adolescents’ needs. It is crucial to work with educators to address their own biases—biases that may get in the way of them effectively sharing information with their students. Selam Tegegne, vice principal of Bethlehem Secondary School in Addis Ababa, shared with us the following reflections after working with the project:

“The training of trainers’ sessions has given me a thorough knowledge on forms of GBV [gender-based violence], SRH, family planning methods, STDs, etc., and now I’m teaching my students on these topics. I also try to create an encouraging and safe environment for students who want to report [GBV] cases. We’ve formed a committee in the school that follows the actions taken on the reported cases.”

At EngenderHealth we are committed to CSE because we know it is effective—as noted above, the global evidence is clear. We have also seen individual lives change because young people are empowered with information. In 2019, a 12-year-old girl named Amina was abducted from her community in Ethiopia by a man who wanted her to be his wife. Her peers intervened. They—and Amina—had been participating in a life skills course that included CSE and covered the rights of young people not to be forced into marriage. Because of their course, these young people knew that what they saw happen to Amina was wrong and they acted. They alerted their school, community leaders, and Amina’s parents, which helped bring Amina back to her family, and back to school.

Text reads "It will take all of us: we must continue to support young people in their knowledge, their rights, and their access to education and healthcare. Comprehensive sexuality education must be a cornerstone of this support. It is foundational for young people’s health, rights, and lives." In the background is a graphic of a world map.

We call on all stakeholders to re-commit to prioritizing CSE for all young people. We specifically call on the stakeholders below to take the following actions:

Donors: Donors have the critical opportunity to fund CSE more comprehensively, both as core interventions and as part of broader health, education, and social welfare programs. Donors must fund CSE comprehensively, and not censor elements of a full CSE model that seem too sensitive or taboo.

Governments: Governments, including Ministries of Health, Education, and Youth should take a rights-based approach to incorporate CSE into policies, standards, guidelines, and curricula, and invest in training and support for teachers. The evidence is clear: CSE will support governments in achieving national objectives toward the Sustainable Development Goals.

Multi-lateral organizations and NGOs: Guiding and implementing organizations must stand up against campaigns and propaganda that promote fallacies about CSE, such as the recent report by the Institute for Research and Evaluation, which provides a faulty analysis of CSE programs and has been refuted in the Journal of Adolescent Health. Organizations must also ensure that we are sharing accurate data about the very real, positive impacts of CSE.

Young people and their communities: Young advocates and activists must continue to use their voices to insist on their right to CSE; their communities must support them by amplifying their voices and promoting access to evidence-based curricula that cover comprehensive content on CSE. 

It will take all of us: we must continue to support young people in their knowledge, their rights, and their access to education and healthcare. Comprehensive sexuality education must be a cornerstone of this support. It is foundational for young people’s health, rights, and lives.