Sex-ed is cru­cial to the rights of chil­dren

Sherbrooke Record - - EDITORIAL - By Va­lerie Michael­son Post Doc­toral Fel­low, School of Re­li­gion and Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health Sci­ences, Queen's Univer­sity, On­tario Colleen M. Dav­i­son As­sis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Global Pub­lic Health, Queen's Univer­sity, On­tario Pamela Dickey Young Pro­fes­sor

Young peo­ple to­day live in a com­plex, fast-paced and per­pet­u­ally con­nected world and face is­sues and pres­sures that were not even an­tic­i­pated two decades ago.

They need a brand of sex ed­u­ca­tion that is re­spon­sive to cur­rent re­al­i­ties, be­hav­iours and pres­sures so they can get the most com­pre­hen­sive and con­tem­po­rary in­for­ma­tion about the is­sues that they will face and are fac­ing in mak­ing de­ci­sions about re­la­tion­ships and sex­ual ac­tiv­ity.

Yet value-laden de­bates have re­cently resur­faced on the On­tario Health and Phys­i­cal Ed­u­ca­tion Cur­ricu­lum, with at­ten­tion fo­cused on sex-ed. Po­lit­i­cal par­ties with op­pos­ing ar­gu­ments of­ten zoom in on cul­tural, mo­ral, reli­gious and fam­ily val­ues, but for our chil­dren and youth, the stakes are much higher.

Re­search shows that com­pre­hen­sive sex­u­al­ity ed­u­ca­tion (CSE) helps young peo­ple un­der­stand the dif­fer­ence be­tween healthy and un­healthy re­la­tion­ships, and gives them tools to help pro­tect them from vi­o­lence and non-con­sen­sual sex­ual ac­tiv­ity. When a young per­son has been abused, it helps them know how to get help.

Some of the aims of teach­ing com­pre­hen­sive sex­u­al­ity ed­u­ca­tion are to em­power and equip young peo­ple to “de­velop re­spect­ful so­cial and sex­ual re­la­tion­ships,” to “con­sider how their choices af­fect their own well-be­ing and that of oth­ers” and to help them pro­tect their own rights as well as those of oth­ers.

Hav­ing rel­e­vant and cur­rent in­for­ma­tion is cru­cial to set­ting young peo­ple on a healthy path for life. It helps them learn to re­spect their own bod­ies and emerg­ing sex­u­al­ity and that of oth­ers, and it fac­tors in on de­ci­sions around sex­ual ac­tiv­ity.

What’s re­li­gion got to do with it?

Re­li­gion is some­times raised as the rea­son for re­mov­ing young peo­ple from sex-ed. Some reli­gious lead­ers and par­ents might say their re­li­gion op­poses cer­tain teach­ings about sex. But reli­gious groups are di­verse and var­ied.

Re­li­gion is not against sex ed­u­ca­tion. One Aus­tralian study shows that reli­gious young peo­ple usu­ally say they want to know about sex, even as they also want to main­tain the reli­gious val­ues of their fam­i­lies.

Some worry that sex-ed might in­crease sex­ual ac­tiv­ity among youth. Yet glob­ally, a great many stud­ies show that the pro­vi­sion of ac­cu­rate CSE is as­so­ci­ated with de­layed sex­ual ac­tiv­ity – not early. Ev­i­dence shows that youth who are taught sex-ed de­lay sex­ual ac­tiv­ity, and for those who are sex­u­ally en­gaged, it re­duces the num­ber of sex­ual part­ners and un­planned preg­nan­cies and in­creases the use of con­tra­cep­tion.

Sex-ed is also di­rectly linked with in­creased lev­els of au­ton­omy, con­fi­dence, emo­tional well-be­ing and bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion in ado­les­cent re­la­tion­ships. Each young per­son has to make im­por­tant de­ci­sions about their sex­u­al­ity and sex­ual health, or will at some point in the fu­ture. Hav­ing ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion is es­sen­tial to their abil­ity to make these de­ci­sions in a way that pro­tects not only their health and well-be­ing, but their dig­nity.

Equip­ping young peo­ple with sex-ed knowl­edge is some­thing that many reli­gious lead­ers and peo­ple of faith would ar­gue is core to their be­liefs. What can some­times look like a “pub­lic con­test” be­tween re­li­gion and sex is of­ten nar­rowly por­trayed and re­in­forces the as­sump­tion that re­li­gion and sex only ex­ist in ten­sion. This is just not true.

Here in On­tario, many reli­gious lead­ers have spo­ken out in sup­port of CSE, in­clud­ing more than 250 United Church clergy. When the re­vised cur­ricu­lum was first in­tro­duced in 2015, mem­bers of the Mus­lim com­mu­nity in Toronto also spoke out in sup­port of it.

Rabea Mur­taza, one of the founders of Mus­lims for On­tario’s Health and Phys­i­cal Ed­u­ca­tion Cur­ricu­lum, said: “Cur­ricu­lum is an op­por­tu­nity for Mus­lim fam­i­lies to have mu­tual, two-way di­a­logue about val­ues, re­la­tion­ships, mar­riage and sex­u­al­ity.”

These voices, and more, see sex-ed not as an at­tack on any­one’s re­li­gion, cul­ture or val­ues, but as ev­i­dence-based lessons that com­ple­ment the unique val­ues of each fam­ily and com­mu­nity.

Bar­ri­ers to sex­ual health

In­ter­na­tion­ally, over­com­ing bar­ri­ers to con­tem­po­rary, com­pre­hen­sive sex­u­al­ity ed­u­ca­tion is a strate­gic and grow­ing pri­or­ity. One of the tar­gets of the United Na­tions Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals is to have CSE avail­able for all chil­dren.

Glob­ally, ad­vo­cates ar­gue for things that we may take for granted in Canada: that ado­les­cents must have their bod­ies re­spected, and must be able to make their own de­ci­sions around choice of part­ner, and whether and when to be sex­u­ally ac­tive, marry or have chil­dren.

World­wide, ado­les­cents face sig­nif­i­cant bar­ri­ers in these ar­ least 23 mil­lion girls aged 15 to 19 have an un­met need for mod­ern con­tra­cep­tion, which is largely due to the so­cial stigma as­so­ci­ated with sex­u­al­ity ed­u­ca­tion and any dis­cus­sion of pre­mar­i­tal sex. The lead­ing cause of death in this age group is re­lated to un­safe abor­tions and preg­nancy com­pli­ca­tions..

Ig­nor­ing the rights of chil­dren

This highly po­lit­i­cal bat­tle has been cen­tred on which group of adults has the power to de­ter­mine the in­for­ma­tion that chil­dren will hear. Set­ting up dis­cus­sions about what chil­dren should learn in school as a bat­tle be­tween var­i­ous “au­thor­i­ties” misses a fun­da­men­tal as­pect of what is at stake: the health, sex­u­al­ity, in­volve­ment, self-ex­pres­sion and rights of our youth.

In­ter­na­tional treaty obli­ga­tions, Cana­dian con­sti­tu­tional rights un­der the Char­ter, and hu­man rights leg­is­la­tion do not ex­plic­itly men­tion sex-ed cur­ricu­lum. How­ever, it is a mat­ter of law, both do­mes­ti­cally and un­der in­ter­na­tional treaty obli­ga­tions, specif­i­cally those out­lined in the UN Con­ven­tion on the Rights of the Child, that chil­dren are per­sons with rights to make choices for them­selves.

Ul­ti­mately, when we are talk­ing about bod­ily au­ton­omy, health and con­sent, it is not the rights, be­liefs or val­ues of adults in au­thor­ity, but the power of youths them­selves to make in­formed de­ci­sions about, and pro­tect, their own bod­ies, that should be the fo­cus of ed­u­ca­tion.

Chil­dren and youth are no one’s prop­erty. They own their own bod­ies and have le­gal rights to in­for­ma­tion, free­dom of ex­pres­sion, iden­tity and au­ton­omy.

We need to stop us­ing health ed­u­ca­tion as a po­lit­i­cal tool de­ployed in the in­ter­ests of win­ning elec­tions and fo­cus in­stead on the in­ter­ests of the next gen­er­a­tion.

A free pub­lic lec­ture and event for high school stu­dents on this is­sue will be held on Wed., Oct. 3 at Queen’s Univer­sity fea­tur­ing our coau­thors: Re­becca Bromwich, as key­note speaker and with Pamela Dickey Young and Colleen Dav­i­son as re­spon­dents.

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