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Sex education and women empowerment

Women and girls, and all young people, should be able to enjoy healthy and respectful relationships without fear of judgment, coercion and violence

In New Delhi in 1994 I was an awkward, impressionable and rudderless 19-year-old, with little focus on my future. A brief conversation with a mentor about a conference, and the gift of a freebie from the event, would change my life. Little did I know that the conference was already changing the world around me.

Fast forward to 2019, I’m living in Nairobi, with that same freebie – a t-shirt, albeit worn and tattered – lying in my cupboard and a 20-year career working with civil society and the United Nations advocating for and upholding the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls.

The t-shirt, by designer Hanae Mori, is from the landmark International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo in 1994, where 179 governments unanimously reached a consensus to view population dynamics not as human numbers but as human rights.

That shift in thinking has affected the entire world, valuing individual women’s rights and youth empowerment through the provision of expanded choices in health education, health services and skills. ICPD laid the foundation

for my academic focus and career, but more importantly has also defined my parenting priorities since.

Twenty-five years later, another high-level summit in Nairobi in November will take stock of progress since Cairo, and create momentum for accelerated action. Many challenges that were a catalyst for the bold vision articulated in 1994 remain relevant today.

Millions of women and girls face barriers to take decisions regarding their bodies – whether, when, how often and with whom to become pregnant.

Young peoples’ access to sexual and reproductive health information and youth-friendly services remains inadequate and of poor quality; gender-based violence, including harmful traditional practices such as child, early and forced marriage, and female genital cutting, are still a reality for many.

And conservative religious and political movements threaten progress towards a world where gender equality and the fulfillment of human rights for all are a pathway to sustainable development.

I made a conscious choice to keep the t-shirt all these years because I was convinced that, should I ever be a parent, I wanted to enable the ICPD vision to be a reality in our home. My wife and I make every effort to ensure that our 10-year-old daughter is brought up in a sex-positive manner.

Ours is an approach that views the understanding of sexuality as a natural and healthy aspect of human life, one that values knowledge of human sexuality and sexual and reproductive rights as an enabler to make informed and responsible choices. It also promotes critical thinking and communication skills to facilitate healthy and respectful relationships between peers and with those in positions of power and authority, including parents and teachers.

The world currently has the largest youth cohort in history, with each young person having their own aspirations, needs and challenges. The ICPD25 summit in Nairobi will endeavor to endorse a suite of voluntary global commitments, the achievement of which underpin Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals.

In my most recent professional role, I was responsible for coordinating UN efforts to promote and strengthen comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) in the Asia-Pacific.

Evidence from diverse contexts globally shows the positive effects of providing high quality sexuality education, including increasing young people’s knowledge and improving their attitudes related to sexual and reproductive rights, particularly the risk of pregnancy or HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

I am even more convinced today about the conversations that we need to be having with our governments, in our schools and living rooms, and in the online spaces that young people inhabit, about the rights of women and girls and all young people, to enjoy healthy and respectful relationships, without fear of judgment, coercion and violence.

As I prepare to sit down to dinner with our 10-year-old daughter tonight I know what we will be talking about. Do you?

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