In-depth: AIDS 2008: PlusNews in Mexico

GLOBAL: Sex education failing young people

Photo: Julius Mwelu/IRIN
Sex education tends to cover biology, but not more complex issues relating to sexuality
Mexico City, 6 August 2008 (PlusNews) - Most sex and HIV education programmes for young people focus on the risks of unsafe sex, leaving them ill-equipped to deal with their sexuality and unable to lead sexually fulfilling lives, experts have said.

"Teaching about the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases is necessary, but it must go hand-in-hand with teaching about healthy sexuality and communicating with young people about their experiences," said Sweden's AIDS Ambassador, Lennarth Hjelmaker, at a satellite session on comprehensive sexuality education for young people at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City.

Prabha Nagarja, who works for an Indian organisation called Talking about Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues, which runs an anonymous helpline for young people, told delegates that calls to her organisation revealed major gaps in India's sex education strategy.

"A new national curriculum on sex education tells young people what not to do sexually, without telling them why or explaining to them even the most basic things, such as how intercourse happens," she said. "Callers who ask whether activities like kissing, eating lunch or sucking nipples can cause HIV demonstrate that despite awareness of the existence of HIV, they have no idea how to protect themselves from it."

Most Latin American countries have committed - on paper, at least - to comprehensive sexuality education, but teen pregnancy in the region is rising, according to Maria Alcaldes, deputy director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

''Society should not be afraid of young people having sex - it is a reality''
She said teachers were not trained to inform children about sex in a way that allowed them to make informed and responsible choices. "There is a need for sexuality education that goes beyond teaching the basic biology."

Alcaldes called on civil society to work with governments to develop comprehensive sexuality education curricula, and to train teachers and parents to handle difficult questions from students in an open and non-judgemental way.

Brian Ackerman, international policy manager of Advocates for Youth, a non-profit lobby group based in Washington, DC, accused the United States government - through its HIV/AIDS funding mechanism, the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief - of limiting young people's knowledge of HIV prevention and sexuality to abstinence and faithfulness.

"Society should not be afraid of young people having sex – it is a reality," he said, adding that young people needed access to information about condoms so they could make informed sexual choices.

Comprehensive sexuality education is particularly crucial to young people living with HIV, but according to the Population Council's Harriet Birungi, who has carried out research in Uganda on young people infected at birth, the messages they receive generally associate sex with "fear and death".

"These young people, like any others, have high hopes and big dreams for their futures, but their counsellors discourage them from having sex, falling pregnant, or seeking out HIV-negative sexual partners," she said. "Positive living messages for them focus on nutrition, exercise and the avoidance of stress, but what is positive living without sexuality?"


See also: KENYA: More education equals less teen pregnancy and HIV
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