“Sexuality” is defined as “a core dimension of being human which includes: the understanding of, and relationship to, the human body; emotional attachment and love; sex; gender; gender identity; sexual orientation; sexual intimacy; pleasure and reproduction. Sexuality is complex and includes biological, social, psychological, spiritual, religious, political, legal, historic, ethical and cultural dimensions that evolve over a lifespan.” (ITGSE, p. 17)
Comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), therefore, is a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality. It aims to equip children and young people with knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that will empower them to: realize their health, well-being and dignity; develop respectful social and sexual relationships; consider how their choices affect their own well-being and that of others; and, understand and ensure the protection of their rights throughout their lives. (ITGSE, p. 16)
[World Health Organisation, 2010; Developing sexual health programmes: A framework for action]
• Delivered in formal and non-formal settings; whether in-school or out-of-school
• Scientifically accurate, based on research, facts and evidence
• Incremental. CSE starts at an early age with foundational content and skills, with new information building upon previous learning, using a spiral-curriculum approach that returns to the same topics at a more advanced level each year.
• Age- and developmentally-appropriate. CSE content and skills grow in abstractness and explicitness with the age and developmental level of the learners. It also must accommodate developmental diversity, adapting for learners with cognitive and emotional development differences.
• Curriculum-based. CSE is based in a written curriculum that includes key teaching objectives, learning objectives and the delivery of clear content and skills in a structured way.
• Comprehensive. CSE is about much more than sexual behaviours. ‘Comprehensive’ refers to the breadth, depth and consistency of topics, as opposed to a one-off lesson or intervention. CSE addresses:
• sexual and reproductive health issues, including, but not limited to: sexual and reproductive anatomy and physiology;
• puberty and menstruation;
• reproduction, contraception, pregnancy and childbirth;
• STIs, including HIV and AIDS.
CSE also addresses the psychological, social and emotional issues relating to these topics, including those that may be challenging in some social and cultural contexts. It supports learners’ empowerment by improving their analytical, communication and other life skills for health and well-being in relation to:
• human rights
• a healthy and respectful family life and interpersonal relationships
• personal and shared values
• cultural and social norms
• gender equality
• sexual behaviour
• violence and gender-based violence
• consent and bodily integrity
• sexual abuse and harmful practices such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation/cutting.
Key values of CSE include:
• Human rights approach. CSE builds on and promotes universal human rights for all, including children and young people. It emphasises the rights of all persons to health, education, information equality and non-discrimination. It raises awareness among young people that they have their own rights, and that they must acknowledge and respect the rights of others, and advocate for those whose rights are violated.
• Gender equality. Integrating a gender perspective throughout CSE curricula is integral to effective CSE programmes. CSE analyses “how gender norms can influence inequality, and how inequality can affect the overall health and well-being of children and young people, as well as the efforts to prevent issues such as HIV, STIs, early and unintended pregnancies, and gender-based violence. CSE contributes to gender equality by building awareness of the centrality and diversity of gender in people’s lives; examining gender norms shaped by cultural, social and biological differences and similarities; and by encouraging the creation of respectful and equitable relationships based on empathy and understanding.”
• Culturally-relevant and context-appropriate. CSE must be delivered in the context of the range of values, beliefs and experiences that exist even within a single culture. It enables learners to examine, understand and challenge the ways in which cultural structures, norms and behaviours affect their choices and relationships within a variety of settings.
• Transformative: CSE impacts whole cultures and communities, not simply individual learners. It can contribute to the development of a fair and compassionate society by empowering individuals and communities, promoting critical thinking skills and strengthening young people’s sense of citizenship. It empowers young people to take responsibility for their own decisions and behaviours, and how they may affect others. It builds the skills and attitudes that enable young people to treat others with respect, acceptance, tolerance and empathy, regardless of their ethnicity, race, social, economic or immigration status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics.
• Develops self-efficacy. CSE teaches young people to reflect on the information around them in order to make informed decisions, communicate and negotiate effectively and develop assertiveness rather than passivity or aggression. These skills foster the creation of respectful and healthy relationships with family members, peers, friends and romantic or sexual partners. (ITGSE, p. 16-17)
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CSE and the Sustainable Development Goals
The 2030 Agenda and its global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for action to leave no one behind, and for the realization of human rights and gender equality for all.” (ITGSE, p. 12). CSE is a part of these goals. The World Health Organisation’s fact sheet, Sexual and Reproductive Health, describes the connections between CSE and SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-Being), SDG 4 (Quality Education), SDG 5 (Gender Equality).]