Sexual education saves lives: so why are adolescents excluded?

By Jetske van Dijk

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Participants of our Pikin to Pikin Tok project

In many countries, sexual and reproductive health is a taboo subject. However, not educating young people about unsafe sex, early childbearing and unsafe abortions exposes adolescents to a multitude of health risks, including sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as HIV/AIDS, infertility and even death.

The release of the UN General Comment on the Implementation of the Rights of the Child during Adolescence in February is a timely occasion to address the role that young people can play in increasing awareness of sexual rights, and playing an active role in saving lives through Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health (ASRH). According to our trustee Ros Davies, Chief Executive of Women and Children First UK:

The UN General Comment is important because adolescents need to be empowered to act on their sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Risks of early childbearing
Adolescents in developing countries are often unaware of the existence of contraceptives such as the contraceptive pill or condoms, or might even be discouraged from using them. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), every year about 21 million girls between 15 and 19 years of age in developing countries become pregnant, and nearly half of these pregnancies are unintended. Early childbearing can be dangerous for both mother and child. Babies born to mothers under the age of 20 have a 50 percent higher risk of being still born or dying in the first few weeks than those born to mothers aged 20 to 29 (WHO, 2014). Complications from pregnancy and child birth are the leading cause of death in girls aged 15 to 19 in low and middle income countries. Apart from the health risks, there are also social and economic implications for early childbearing. Young girls getting pregnant while still in school often drop out. Lack of education necessarily limits girls’ potential to become fully self-determining. It increases their economic dependence on their husband or family and thus renders them more vulnerable, less able to exercise choice about the direction of their lives. The country as a whole also misses out on the potential contribution that they might make to its development – socially, culturally and economically.

Child to Child has addressed these issues directly through our local partners, including Ace Africa, which runs Child to Child Health Clubs in Tanzania. Participation in these clubs can be life-changing. Juliet (aged 12) was educated on the dangers of teenage pregnancy and also encouraged to teach others what she learned. She said: “The clubs help us explain to other children not to get pregnant.” 

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Participant of a Child to Child Health Club in Tanzania

HIV/AIDS in adolescents
While the overall number of HIV-related deaths is down, HIV deaths among adolescents are rising. Women and Children First estimates that in sub-Saharan Africa, only 10 percent of young men and 15 percent of young women are aware of their HIV status and many young people do not know how to protect themselves from becoming infected. The stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS and the people who are infected, plus the lack of information leads to many adolescents getting infected.

As a child, Kennedy from Kenya attended the Ace Africa Child to Child Health Clubs where he learned about HIV/AIDS, its effects, and possible treatments. He said it changed his whole community, because the children would teach other community members about the disease and prevention. The stigma surrounding infected people was slowly lifted. Kennedy added:

In the club we were also taught about the effects of early and unprotected sex. I noticed a very big change within one year, as teenage pregnancies and school dropouts were not as common.

Prioritising sexual education
Through our Pikin to Pikin radio project in Sierra Leone, children and young adults were encouraged to discuss issues such as sexual health, teenage pregnancies and learned about the dangers of early child-bearing. Gender equality was also an important topic discussed. Girls were instructed how to keep themselves safe from sexual violence and how to avoid unwanted pregnancies. A father in the community commented:

After hearing the broadcast I sat down with my children and told them about the dangers of teenage pregnancy … and how contraceptives can be obtained from Marie Stopes.”

Educating adolescents on sexual and reproductive health is vitally important. The taboo surrounding the topic should be lifted: adolescents should never feel embarrassed to talk to their parents about their sexual health or be too shy to ask for contraceptives at a health clinic. Both boys and girls need to be taught the importance of consent, that forcing someone to have sex is wrong and illegal, and that using a condom can prevent you and your partner from getting infected by STDs. Girls must be empowered so that they know they can refuse to have sex, get pregnant or marry young. Only through realising these rights, can adolescent girls and boys and their families, communities and countries thrive.