International technical guidance on sexuality education. An evidence informed Approach

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16/01/2018 12:00 am

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Comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) plays a central role in the preparation of young people for a safe, productive, fulfilling life in a world where HIV and AIDS, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), unintended pregnancies, gender-based violence (GBV) and gender inequality still pose serious risks to their well-being. However, despite clear and compelling evidence for the bene ts of high-quality, curriculum-based CSE, few children and young people receive preparation for their lives that empowers them to take control and make informed decisions about their sexuality and relationships freely and responsibly.

Many young people approach adulthood faced with conflicting, negative and confusing messages about sexuality that are often exacerbated by embarrassment and silence from adults, including parents and teachers. In many societies, attitudes and laws discourage public discussion of sexuality and sexual behaviour, and social norms may perpetuate harmful conditions, for example gender inequality in relation to sexual relationships, family planning and modern contraceptive use.

A significant body of evidence shows that CSE enables children and young people to develop: accurate and age-appropriate knowledge, attitudes and skills; positive values, including respect for human rights, gender equality and diversity, and, attitudes and skills that contribute to safe, healthy, positive relationships (see Section 4 – The evidence base for comprehensive sexuality education). CSE is also important as it can help young people reflect on social norms, cultural values and traditional beliefs, in order to better understand and manage their relationships with peers, parents, teachers, other adults and their communities.

Countries are increasingly acknowledging the importance of equipping young people with the knowledge and skills to make responsible choices in their lives, particularly in a context where they have greater exposure to sexually explicit material through the Internet and other media. The 2030 Agenda and its global Sustainable Development Goals1 (SDGs) calls for action to leave no one behind, and for the realization of human rights and gender equality for all. The mobilization of political commitment to achieve goals on education, gender equality, health and well-being, also provides an important opportunity to scale up existing or new multisectoral programmes to bring CSE to children and young people everywhere. CSE programmes should be delivered by well-trained and supported teachers in school settings, as they provide an important opportunity to reach large numbers of young people with sexuality education before they become sexually active, as well as offering a structured environment of learning within which to do so. CSE should also be made available to out-of-school young people and children – often the most vulnerable to misinformation, coercion and exploitation.

The purpose of the International technical guidance on sexuality education and its intended audiences

The International technical guidance on sexuality education (the Guidance) was developed to assist education, health and other relevant authorities in the development and implementation of school-based and out-of-school comprehensive sexuality education programmes and materials. It is immediately relevant for government education ministers and their professional staff, including curriculum developers, school principals and teachers. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), youth workers and young people can also use the document as an advocacy or accountability tool, for example by sharing it with decision-makers as a guide to best practices and/or for its integration within broader agendas, such as the SDGs. The Guidance is also useful for anyone involved in the design, delivery and evaluation of sexuality education programmes both in and out of school, including stakeholders working on quality education, sexual and reproductive health (SRH), adolescent health and/or gender equality, among other issues.

The Guidance emphasizes the need for programmes that are informed by evidence, adapted to the local context, and logically designed to measure and address factors such as beliefs, values, attitudes and skills which, in turn, may affect health and well-being in relation to sexuality.

The quality and impact of school-based CSE is dependent not only on the teaching process – including the capacity of teachers, the pedagogical approaches employed and the teaching and learning materials used – but also on the whole school environment. This is manifested through school rules and in-school practices, among other aspects. CSE is an essential component of a broader quality education and plays a critical role in determining the health and well-being of all learners.

The Guidance is intended to:

  • provide a clear understanding of CSE and clarify the desired positive outcomes of CSE;
  •  promote an understanding of the need for CSE programmes by raising awareness of relevant sexual and reproductive health (SRH) issues and concerns that impact children and young people;
  •  share evidence and research-based guidance to assist policy-makers, educators and curriculum developers;
  •  increase teachers’ and educators’ preparedness and enhance institutional capacity to provide high-quality CSE;
  •  provide guidance to education authorities on how to build support for CSE at the community and school levels;
  •  provide guidance on how to develop relevant, evidence-informed, age- and developmentally-appropriate CSE curricula, teaching and learning materials and programmes that are culturally responsive;
  •  demonstrate how CSE can increase awareness about issues that may be considered sensitive in some cultural contexts, such as menstruation and gender equality. CSE can also raise awareness of harmful practices such as child early and forced marriage (CEFM) and female genital mutilation/ cutting (FGM/C).

In addition to being informed by the latest evidence, the Guidance is firmly grounded in numerous international human rights conventions that stress the right of every individual to education and to the highest attainable standard of health and well-being. These human rights conventions include the Universal Declaration on Human Rights; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Further information on the relevant international conventions is available in Appendix I: International conventions, resolutions, declarations and agreements related to comprehensive sexuality education.

The Guidance is not a curriculum, nor does it provide detailed recommendations for operationalizing CSE at country level. Rather, it is a framework based on international best practices, which is intended to support curriculum developers to create and adapt curricula appropriate to their context, and to guide programme developers in the design, implementation and monitoring of good quality sexuality education.

The Guidance was developed through a process designed to ensure quality, acceptability and ownership at the international level, with inputs from experts and practitioners from different regions around the world. At the same time, it should be noted that the Guidance is voluntary in character, as it recognizes the diversity of different national contexts in which sexuality education is taking place, and the authority of governments to determine the content of educational curricula in their country.

How is the Guidance structured?

The Guidance comprises seven sections. The first four sections provide the definition and rationale for CSE, together with the updated evidence base. The fourth section presents the
key concepts and topics, together with learning objectives sequenced by age group. The final two sections provide guidance on building support for CSE and recommendations for delivering effective programmes.

This comprehensive package, taken as a whole, constitutes the recommended set of topics, as well as guidance on delivery, for effective CSE. These global benchmarks can and should be adapted to local contexts to ensure relevance, provide ideas for how to monitor the content being taught, and assess progress towards the teaching and learning objectives.

Why do we need a revised version of the Guidance?

The first version of the Guidance was published by UNESCO in 2009, in partnership with the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Since its publication, the Guidance has served as an evidence-informed educational resource that is globally applicable, easily adaptable to local contexts. It has also been used as a tool to advocate for CSE for all children, adolescents and youth – as an essential component of quality education – in line with their human rights.

The field of CSE has evolved rapidly since the Guidance was first published. The implementation of sexuality education programmes across diverse educational settings has generated improved understanding and lessons-learned, while the evidence base for CSE has been consolidated and broadened. The SDGs now o er a new global development framework within which the scope, position and relevance of sexuality education should be understood. New considerations have emerged, including an increased recognition of gender perspectives and social context in health promotion; the protective role of education in reducing vulnerability to poor sexual health outcomes, including those related to HIV, STIs, early and unintended pregnancy and gender-based violence; as well as the influence of and widespread access to the Internet and social media. Furthermore, CSE has been recognized as an important component of adolescent health interventions (WHO, 2017b).

Acknowledging these changes, UNESCO, in collaboration with the original UN partners as well as United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) has reviewed and updated the content of the Guidance to reflect the latest evidence; respond to the contemporary needs of young learners; and provide support for education systems and practitioners that seek to address those needs. As well as providing additional evidence, the revised Guidance o ers an updated set of key concepts, topics and learning objectives, while retaining the original key features and content that has proven to be effective for its audience.

The development process

This revised publication is based on a new review of evidence, together with a review of curricula and curricula frameworks, both commissioned by UNESCO in 2016. The new evidence review was conducted by Professor Paul Montgomery and Wendy Knerr of University of Oxford Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention, UK (referenced as UNESCO 2016b) in this Guidance. The review of curricula and curricular frameworks was carried out by Advocates for Youth, USA (referenced as UNESCO 2017c). Both reports are available for reference online at

UNESCO also convened an advisory group in order to oversee and guide the revisions of this volume. The Comprehensive Sexuality Education Advisory Group comprised technical experts from across the globe, working in the fields of education, health, youth development, human rights and gender equality. It included researchers, ministry of education officials, young people, NGO programme implementers and development partners.

In order to gather input from multiple stakeholders, and to assess the use and usefulness of the original Guidance among its intended audience, the revision process also involved an online survey of user perspectives on the original Guidance; targeted focus group discussions at country level; and a global stakeholder consultation meeting. This revised version is therefore based on wide-ranging expert inputs, including the voices of young people, and an understanding of existing best practices (see Appendix II: List of participants in the Comprehensive Sexuality Education Advisory Group, 2016–2017; and Appendix III: List of participants in the UNESCO Stakeholder Consultation and Advisory Group meetings).

Read the ‘International technical guidance on sexuality education. An evidence informed Approach’.

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