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Ensuring Economic Prosperity Through Comprehensive Sexuality Education: a Crucial Challenge for Asean

MAY 12, 2017

This year, the World Economic Forum on Asean will be focusing on youth, and one of the topics we’ll be talking about is education. When we talk about education, a key part of that conversation must be about sex education — an essential element in preparing children and young people for the world of work, to make them better citizens and, ultimately, happier and more caring human beings.

The term the UN uses to describe the right kind of sex education is comprehensive sexuality education or CSE.

Comprehensive, because it’s not just about teaching the physiology of sex, but about helping young people to make happy and responsible choices around very fundamental issues that will define their future.

Love, respect and productivity

Issues like whether and with whom and how to share their bodies and their hearts, how to love and form relationships in a respectful way, how to accept and celebrate differences in others rather than fear them, and – especially in the case of girls – how to value themselves and take charge of their own lives.

Knowledge and skills to engage constructively with these issues are essential not only to avoid undesired pregnancies or sexually transmitted infections, but also for young people to be effective and productive at work, and to contribute to the common good of society.

A key component of CSE is social and emotional learning which empowers young people with the skills and abilities to form healthy, respectful and constructive relationships with others.

These capacities are increasingly valued by employers, as businesses recognize the importance of team work for better productivity.

One study published in the Harvard Business Review found that the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has grown by 50 percent or more over the last two decades, and that, at many companies, more than three-quarters of an employee’s day is spent communicating with colleagues. Studies also show that people working in teams tend to achieve better results and report higher job satisfaction.

Another crucial element of comprehensive sexuality education is teaching about gender equality and empowering girls.

Governments and employers alike in the Asean region and globally are increasingly recognizing the importance of empowering women and expanding their participation in the workforce. This is all the more crucial as countries across Asia-Pacific face the prospect of a shrinking workforce due to falling fertility rates and ageing populations.

We must get girls into school and support them to complete at least a secondary education of good quality. Part of that quality means providing a safe and supportive environment, encouraging girls to learn, explore and express themselves.

Gender sensitivity and girls’ empowerment is especially central to CSE because if there’s one sphere of life where girls absolutely need to be safe and free and respected, it’s in that most intimate aspect that has to do with sex and love.

So where are we in Asean in terms of access to CSE? We’ve made some progress, but, frankly, there are many gaps.

Stats indicate huge challenges

In 2015, the Asean region had an estimated 164 million young people aged 10-24; this will increase to over 166 million by 2030. Currently, over 15 million young people are of secondary school age, 24 percent of whom are out of school.

Youth unemployment is up to five times higher than adult unemployment.

In Southeast Asia, women’s labour force participation is 59 percent on average, compared to 82 percent for men.

A wage gap persists – women in Cambodia and Singapore, for example, earn a quarter less than men do.

There are almost 27 million adolescent girls aged 15-19 in the Asean region. Of these, 35 percent have married as teenagers, and 18 percent have given birth before the age of 20. About 45 percent of all sexually active adolescent girls – more than 1 million – have an unmet need for modern contraceptives.

While adolescent birth is slowing globally, some Asean countries have shown recent increases, including Cambodia, the Philippines and Thailand.

National surveys reveal that across Asean, between six and 34 percent of women have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence at the hands of intimate partners in their lifetime. Over 40 percent of adolescent girls in at least three Asean countries feel that wife-beating is acceptable under some circumstances. These are sobering, daunting numbers.

Among other things, these numbers tell us that access to education must be greatly expanded and young people need much more support to stay in school and complete their studies.

In particular, CSE needs to reach many more young people – and where it is provided, it far too often isn’t of the quality that’s needed and isn’t having the impact it should.

Schools aren’t doing enough to provide social and emotional learning, or a happy and safe environment for young people – and they aren’t teaching the very basic truth that violence, whether physical or psychological, is never acceptable, and that girls are equal in dignity and rights to boys.

The way forward

One thing we need to do to make progress is to get over the idea that teaching about sex will make young people go out and have sex. In fact, evidence tells us the contrary.

Good CSE tends to lead to delayed initiation of sexual activity, fewer partners and greater use of protection.

What can governments and businesses do to ensure that all children and young people have access to high-quality CSE?

A key step is simply to set that goal explicitly, take the decision and make the political commitment to achieve it. This must be given as much importance as goals governing economic growth.

Businesses, as corporate citizens, can and should provide political support to this cause by speaking out publicly, and engaging in dialogue with government, political and civil society leaders on this issue.

Governments must invest more in CSE and education in general.

Teachers have to be better trained, particularly in CSE which is a subject most of them are afraid to touch to begin with.

Curricula should be reformed to incorporate more social and emotional learning and gender sensitivity, and school environments in general should be more inclusive, participatory and democratic.

More effort needs to be made to get children, especially girls, into school and help them stay there – including and especially when girls get pregnant.

Thailand is providing an excellent example in its Adolescent Pregnancy Act that mandates CSE in all schools, including teacher training and calls for schools to support pregnant girls to stay on and complete their studies.

Cambodia has sexuality education right from primary school through secondary school, plus teacher training.

The Philippines’ Reproductive Health bill includes a section on mandatory age-appropriate reproductive health and sexuality education.

Other Asean countries such as Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore and Vietnam are also beginning to make progress in this area.

That all human beings – and especially young people – have the means and the freedom to make good, happy and responsible choices about sex and love and child bearing is so central not only to our physical and mental health, but also to the possibility of building societies that are democratic and inclusive, that respect and celebrate diversity.

Societies that care for those that are the most vulnerable, and seek to embrace those that are excluded and marginalized.

This vision is at the heart of the Programme of Action of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, the ICPD, which serves as the foundation for UNFPA’s work – as well as the new 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals which all countries have pledged to achieve, with the ultimate aim of leaving no one behind.

We at UNFPA Asia-Pacific are seeking partnerships with governments, civil society and the private sector in making comprehensive sexuality education an essential building block for a future where economic prosperity is underpinned by a healthy and respectful approach to life and love.

Let’s do this together for our children, our countries and our region as a whole.

Yoriko Yasukawa is Asia-Pacific Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). He was a speaker on the panel "Future-proofing education today for the skills of tomorrow" at the World Economic Forum on Asean in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, this week.