Young children and adolescents learn about sexual matters and reproduction by observing adult behaviour, from peers and older siblings, increasingly from the media, and, in some families, from their parents. Such information, however, is typically limited, frequently erroneous and, in the case of the media, often unduly glamourized.
UNFPA has funded the development and inclusion of family life education (FLE) in school curricula in 79 countries over the past three decades, with technical assistance from UNESCO. In contrast to earlier curricula that focused on the population-development linkage, today’s curricula are more likely to add reproductive health and physiology, family planning information and training for responsible parenthood (including planning and decision- making skills), encouragement of sexual abstinence, STD/HIV prevention, and training in gender equality.
Thus, formal instruction is an important source of accurate information. Formalized curricula for sexuality education are much less common in developing countries than in developed ones, and they are typically not implemented on a national level. In many cases, the average period of school attendance is so short as to preclude this possibility. Even in countries with nearly universal secondary education, many of the most disadvantaged adolescents drop out of school prematurely. Thus, important as school-based programmes might be, they need to be supplemented by various community-based educational programmes.
There is often strong religious and political opposition to sexuality education out of fear that it will encourage sexual activity. Data indicate, however, that sexuality education does not encourage young people to engage in sex. Most studies show that education about reproductive and sexual health contributes to the postponement of sexual activity and to the use of contraception among teens who are sexually active.
Especially now, when adolescents are increasingly at risk of STDs and AIDS, it is crucial that governments, educators, parents and community leaders recognize these risks and the reality of premarital sexual activity among young people. It is imperative to work together to provide the sexuality education young people need to protect themselves. This includes, in addition to biological facts, information about dating, relation-ships, marriage and contraception. Programmes must help young people—boys and girls—recognize the merits of abstinence, develop the skills necessary to resist peer pressure and inappropriate sexual advances, and instil the confidence to negotiate the use of contraception with their partner.