Sophie Edwards

The United Nations has come out with updated guidance to encourage education ministers, especially in developing countries, to invest further in comprehensive sexuality education for young people, offering advice on when and how it can most effectively be delivered.

The voluntary guidelines offer a more progressive approach than previous iterations, promoting a “positive” and broad understanding of what can be included in comprehensive sexuality education — or CSE — with a focus on gender, avoiding early pregnancy, and rights.

The revised international technical guidance on sexuality education, released by UNESCO earlier this month, is the long-awaited update to initial guidelines published in 2009. It is aimed at education policymakers to help them design and deliver more accurate, comprehensive, and judgement-free education programs about sex and relationships to young people.

Effective CSE can play a major role in achieving the sustainable development agenda, research shows. Reducing unintended pregnancies improves health outcomes and helps keep girls in school. CSE can also help reduce transmission rates for sexually transmitted infections; while research from the Population Council suggests that well-designed programs can reduce gender-based violence within relationships and promote gender equality.

However, sex education in many countries has been held back by conservative political agendas and cultural and religious concerns, advocates say. While the 2009 manual was initially met with controversy, according to Christopher Castle, head of UNESCO’s Health and Education section, it “quickly became a critical reference” and “standard” for CSE.

But the document needed a refresh, he said, due at least in part to the emergence of new evidence about what makes CSE effective. The organization wanted to promote a more “positive” and broader approach, Castle said, by emphasizing issues such as respect, responsibility, and reciprocity within sexual relationships as opposed to talking about “risks and scare tactics.”

Advocates welcomed the revised guidance, which they described as more “inclusive,” covering gender and LGBTQI issues in more detail than the 2009 version. But some also expressed fears that the U.N. guidelines would fall on deaf ears in some countries unless accompanied by additional financing to support advocacy around the importance of CSE.

“Inclusion is very good and important, but the question is what happens when this is being challenged,” said Maria Sjödin, deputy executive director of OutRight Action International, which campaigns for LGBTQI rights and was involved in putting the guidelines together.

“It’s a really touchy subject and people still get panicked about the idea of young people and sex being discussed in the same sentence.” — Lori Adelman, director of youth engagement at Women Deliver