14 December 2020

Comprehensive Sexuality Education During a Pandemic: Interview with UNFPA’s Ilya Zhukov

Comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) is key for empowering youth—but how can it be delivered when schools around the globe have closed? Every Woman Every Child speaks with Ilya Zhukov, a member of the adolescent and youth team at UNFPA’s sexual and reproductive health branch, about the importance of CSE, how to understand the new out-of-school CSE guidance, myths when it comes to sexual education, and the opportunities presented by the pandemic. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

1. Why is out-of-school comprehensive sexuality education so important? What gaps does it address and who might it reach that traditional CSE does not? EWEC advocates for the well-being of women, children, and adolescents, so we would be especially interested in hearing about the impact of CSE on these groups. 

Let me first explain how we came to the current understanding of CSE. The term Comprehensive Sexuality Education is relatively new, and its rights-based and gender-focused definition became widely used, largely due to UNFPA, after it was adopted in its Operational Guidance for CSE in 2014. The next milestone was reached four years later when the UN International Guidance on CSE (ITGSE) provided the first  joint UN definition on CSE as 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 the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that will empower them to realize their health, well-being and dignity; develop respectful social and sexual relationships; consider the well-being of others that are affected by their choices; and understand and ensure the protection of their rights throughout their lives.” The new guidance for 2020 defines out-of-school CSE as not being delivered at school to students as a part of the school curriculum, whether within or outside the regular school timetable.

We are talking about out-of-school CSE for many reasons. First of all, moving CSE outside of the more rigid school setting provides a number of opportunities to adapt content, methodologies, timing and dosage. Compared with CSE delivered in school, out-of-school CSE affords the opportunity to create a more informal and flexible setting than may be possible in school, with the potential for smaller learning groups, longer class times, more varied and creative delivery of the curriculum, and more interaction among learners. Out-of-school CSE can also include challenging topics and promote a rights-based approach rooted in gender equality and empowerment in a way that may not always be feasible or acceptable in school settings. Learners could feel more safe and free to share questions and perspectives that they may be reluctant to voice to a teacher at their own school.

Another reason to promote CSE out of school is the number of children and adolescents who don’t have access school. Experts estimate this number of 263 million.  

We know, that CSE is even more effective when it links to sexual and reproductive health services, as well as to condoms and contraceptives. Out-of-school programmes may be better able to provide sexual and reproductive health commodities and link children and young people to services, mentors and other forms of support.

Adolescents and young people are not a homogeneous group. Different populations of youth have different needs which should be addressed differently. And out-of-school programmes can provide an opportunity to tailor CSE to the needs of specific groups of children and young people. For example, the new out-of-school CSE Guidance covers delivering CSE to young people with disabilities; young people in humanitarian settings; young indigenous people; young lesbian, gay and bisexual people, and  other young men who have sex with men; young transgender people;  young intersex people; young people living with HIV;  young people who use drugs; young people who sell sex;  and young people in detention

2. Has the pandemic—especially with so many kids worldwide learning online—created new challenges for developing an out-of-school CSE program? How has it been necessary to adjust to the reality of kids in this “new normal”?

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a tremendous effect on young people’s lives, health and well-being, and its medium- and long-term impacts could be devastating if adequate measures are not taken to guarantee basic rights for young people. Unknown and unfolding periods of physical distancing measures and school closures leave adolescents and young people across the world without access to essential sexual and reproductive health information, services, and rights, including comprehensive sexuality education (CSE). In fact in many, settings all CSE became delivered out of school.

At the same time, the pandemic gave us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do things differently. First of all, the pandemic intensified the development and implementation of digital CSE. Digital sexuality education can be more accessible and effective by reaching many young people at the same time across large geographical areas, and engages marginalized, left-behind populations of young people who may otherwise be excluded from mainstream programmes. Digital sexuality education may also potentially deliver CSE with increased fidelity, since content is fixed and not dependent on a facilitator’s willingness to present it, and be interactive for the learner while letting the learner more actively engage with their own learning at their own pace. While not a silver bullet on its own, digital CSE complements face-to-face CSE and, during this COVID-19 pandemic period, is an especially important supplement in the absence of, or with significantly reduced, access to face-to-face CSE in and outside school settings. Also it’s important to address the drivers of existing inequities, such as inequities in accessing digital platforms and technology (the digital divide), particularly for girls and young women and vulnerable populations. 

Let me remind you that sexuality education includes variety of topics, e.g. violence, including gender-based violence; safe use of the internet; consent, bodily integrity and privacy. In the time of lockdowns and schools closing, we see alarming data about the rise of domestic violence, unplanned or forced sexual activities, and sexual violence that makes us consider the delivery of CSE to be a crucial action.

The pandemic required us to reach out to health care providers and to encourage them to join CSE forces and to use contact with adolescent patients to communicate key CSE messages, provide educational materials, and inform them about educational programmes in mass media or digital media.

I would like to refer you to UNFPA technical brief “LEARNING BEYOND THE CLASSROOM ADAPTING COMPREHENSIVE SEXUALITY EDUCATION PROGRAMMING DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC” to get practical detailed advice for programme adaptation of CSE during COVID-19.

3. When doing research to put together the new guidelines, did you come across anything particularly surprising or interesting, either about the experiences of youth with CSE or about how they respond? Anything that particularly stuck out? 

This is the brand-new Guidance. It is based on the evidence together with the input of a wide range of experts, including the perspective of young people, and an understanding of current good practices and successful programmes. There were a lot of interesting and surprising facts that we found out while working on it. Let me give you just some examples.

We usually use a mantra that kids, especially adolescents, do not trust their parents as reliable sources about relationship, love and sex. Which is not correct. Parent-focused interventions and interventions that include parents were found to be more effective than family-based programmes and programmes delivered only to youth. In particular, even one session bringing youth and parents together improved effectiveness, and parents may be able to increase condom use if they talk to their children about using condoms.

As I always say, CSE without gender focus is not CSE. Gender-transformative approaches are more effective than gender-neutral or gender-sensitive approaches in changing gender norms and attitudes in boys, and presumably in all genders.

We recommend starting CSE from the age of 5. Programmes that reached younger age groups before they became sexually active were more effective in improving young people’s sexual health, compared with those that reached young people who were already sexually active. Of course, all content of CSE programmes should be age and developmentally appropriate. 

One of the key CSE topics is tolerance, inclusion and respect. We have evidence that successful interventions to reduce stigma and discrimination should be led by or actively engaged communities experiencing stigma – e.g. LGBTQ+ youth, or young indigenous people, or adolescents living with HIV, etc.

4. What are some of the key recommendations for those trying to successfully implement out-of-school CSE?

One of the critical recommendation, which is often left behind by smart adult experts, is the meaningful engagement of adolescents and youth in CSE  programs development, implementation, evaluation and advocacy. Youth participation is crucial now more than ever: engagement with youth stakeholders is needed to identify the needs of young people, including the ones from left-behind populations, and gaps in accessing CSE during the pandemic.