16 Days: Challenge Gender-based Violence Using Comprehensive Sexuality Education

Marissa Billowitz, Senior Program Officer, Youth

A big perk of my job is that I get to talk a lot about sex and sexuality education to a variety of audiences. When you ask the average person (someone who doesn’t talk about sex all day) what “sex ed” is, they probably think of the classic drawing of a uterus, explanations of where babies come from, and maybe a condom demonstration on a banana. Or worse, they think of the ineffective and unscientific abstinence-only programs that are a legacy of the previous U.S. administration. But what we now know is that, to be effective, sexuality education needs to cover a broad range of topics including equality and human rights, and be presented in a manner that promotes critical thinking.

The sex education curricula that have the most positive effects on young people’s sexual and reproductive health outcomes address gender and power. The outcomes of comprehensive sexuality education include not only contraceptive and condom use but also more equitable attitudes about the relationship between men and women and decreased violence within all intimate relationships.

Challenging gender norms through sexuality education means both girls and boys learn that culture is not a monolith, that it changes all the time, and that we can hold onto the beautiful things that make us who we are while challenging the things that limit us -- or can even harm us. This manifests in a girl being able to achieve academically, have dreams that may or may not include marriage, and make decisions about her body. For boys, a gender equity perspective can mean feeling good about their emotions and how they express themselves without fear of being teased or worse.

The reality is that we have a long way to go before all people can realize dreams beyond what is deemed appropriate for their gender. One of the clearest pieces of evidence we have that demonstrates how patriarchal values that allow men to control sexuality persists is the high rates of gender-based violence, including sexual violence and homophobic hate crimes.

In our field, program managers often struggle to provide the much-needed, immediate services for those who have experienced violence, particularly sexual violence. Providing quality psychological, legal, and medical attention, such as emergency contraception and post-exposure prophylaxis for STIs and HIV, can be a challenge in a sexual and reproductive health care setting. These services are essential to meet immediate needs of victims and also to prevent future violent attacks.

But we need to look beyond simply reacting to violence and toward the work of prevention. If all young people had access to comprehensive sexuality education, we would see a reduction in violence and entrenched gender inequality, and young people would have the skills and information needed to form healthy, consensual relationships based on equality and trust.

For more information and guidelines on facilitating comprehensive sexuality education, download the It’s All One Curriculum, a tool kit created by IPPF/WHR and our partners.

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