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Comprehensive sexuality education protects children and helps build a safer, inclusive society

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Sexuality is an integral part of human life. Children and young people have the right to receive reliable, science-based and comprehensive information about it. Yet, sexuality education in schools is a sensitive issue. Ever since it was first introduced in European school curricula in the 1970’s, parents, religious leaders and politicians have been arguing, often in highly polarised debates, about how much, and what should be taught at what age.

Many Council of Europe member states have made considerable progress over the last decades towards delivering such education and improving its content so that it goes beyond biology and reproduction and truly equips children with knowledge about their bodies and their rights, and informs them about gender equality, sexual orientation, gender identity and healthy relationships (an approach often referred to as comprehensive sexuality education).

A renewed resistance to sexuality education

Despite overwhelming evidence that comprehensive sexuality education benefits children and society as a whole, we currently face renewed opposition to the provision of mandatory sexuality education in schools. Such resistance is often an illustration of a broader opposition to the full realisation of the human rights of specific groups, in particular women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons and, to some extent, children themselves, on grounds that it would threaten traditional and religious values.

In 2019, a draft bill labelled “Stop Paedophilia” was put forward in the Polish Parliament by a group of citizens. It envisages the introduction of harsh penalties – including possible imprisonment – for anyone acting in the educational context or on school premises who “propagates or approves the undertaking by a minor of sexual intercourse or any other sexual act”. I expressed serious concern that the bill may be used to effectively criminalise the provision of sexuality education to school children. Most recently, the President of Poland, running for a second term, made it a campaign pledge to essentially forbid schools from teaching LGBT issues in sexuality education classes. Last year, in Birmingham (UK), religious communities and parents organised protests in front of schools that were providing information about same-sex relationships and transgender issues to their pupils. The recent adoption, in June 2020, by the Romanian Parliament of a bill repealing the mandatory provision of comprehensive sexuality education in school curricula is yet another example of this renewed opposition to the right of children to sexuality education. This move came after the adoption, in early 2020, of legislation introducing such mandatory sexuality education in schools, a development which was labelled by religious organisations as “an attack against the innocence of children.”

In Italy, as noted by the Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO), which monitors the implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (the Istanbul Convention), the government’s initiative in 2015 to prepare “National Guidelines for Education to Affectivity, Sexuality and Reproductive Health in Schools” was stopped due to growing resistance to education on sexuality and the stigmatisation, often channelled through disinformation campaigns on the content of such education, of those partaking in it. In the Spanish autonomous region of Murcia, it is now possible for parents to request that their children opt out from certain classes provided by external educators, should the parents consider that the subject or the providers are not in line with their views on certain issues. This could have a negative impact on these children’s access to sexuality and relationships education, as this subject, as well as other human rights education-related content, is often provided by external actors, within the context of the ordinary curriculum.

Dispelling the myths about comprehensive sexuality education

Campaigns have multiplied across the continent, disseminating distorted or misleading information about existing sexuality education curricula. They have presented sexuality education as sexualising children at an early age, “propaganda in favour of homosexuality”, spreading “gender ideology”, and depriving parents of their right to educate their children in accordance with their values and beliefs. Disinformation about the actual contents of the curriculum is deliberately spread to scare parents.

It is time to set the record straight. UNESCO has spelled out the aims of sexuality education as “teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality. It aims to equip children and young people with knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that will empower them to: realize their health, well-being and dignity; develop respectful social and sexual relationships; consider how their choices affect their own well-being and that of others; and understand and ensure the protection of their rights throughout their lives.”

Contrary to what opponents claim, research carried out at national and international level has demonstrated the benefits of comprehensive sexuality education, including: delayed sexual initiation; reduced risk-taking; increased use of contraception; and improved attitudes related to sexual and reproductive health.

Sexuality education in schools is today all the more necessary as children in most cases can – and do — obtain information otherwise, in particular through the Internet and social media. While these can be useful and appropriate sources of information, they can also convey a distorted image of sexuality and lack information on emotional and rights-related aspects of sexuality. Through websites or social media children can also access scientifically inaccurate information, for example as regards contraception.

It is worth emphasising that sexuality education in schools comes as a complement to and not a replacement of what may be shared by parents at home. However, it cannot be left entirely to families. In what other field of science would we relinquish the education of our children to the Internet or families exclusively?

Comprehensive sexuality education is a powerful tool to combat violence, abuse and discrimination and to promote respect for diversity

The benefits of sexuality education, when comprehensive, go far beyond information on reproduction and health risks associated with sexuality.

Sexuality education is essential to prevent and combat sexual abuse against children, sexual violence and sexual exploitation. The Council of Europe Convention on Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (“the Lanzarote Convention”) requires from states that they “ensure that children, during primary and secondary education, receive information on the risks of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, as well as on the means to protect themselves, adapted to their evolving capacity.” The Lanzarote Committee, in charge of monitoring the implementation of the Convention, stressed for example that the school environment was particularly appropriate to inform about the widespread problem of sexual abuse against children within the family framework or in their “circle of trust”.

The importance of sexuality education to prevent children from falling prey to  sexual offenders online was highlighted during the period of confinement due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As stressed by the Lanzarote Committee, during this period, children became increasingly vulnerable to online grooming, sexual extorsion, cyber-bullying or other sexual exploitation facilitated by information and communication technologies. The Committee urged states to step up information on risks and on children’s rights online, as well as counselling and support services. In this context, I note with interest that in some countries, such as Estonia, sexuality education continued to be provided as part of online schooling.

Likewise, sexuality education is crucial to prevent gender-based violence and discrimination against women. It should therefore contribute to conveying, from the early stages of education, strong messages in favour of equality between women and men, promoting non-stereotyped gender roles, educating about mutual respect, consent to sexual relations, non-violent conflict resolution in interpersonal relationships and respect for personal integrity, as requested by the Istanbul Convention.

It is also an ideal context for raising awareness about the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women, including access to modern contraception and safe abortion. Research carried out in the European region under the auspices of the World Health Organisation (WHO) indicates that the teenage birth rate tends to be much higher in countries, such as Bulgaria and Georgia, where no mandatory comprehensive sexuality education programmes are in place. Early pregnancy is not only potentially very damaging for the health of teenage girls, but it also results in serious limitations to their educational opportunities.

Existing sexuality education curricula often tend to completely exclude LGBTI people and issues, or even to stigmatise them. Yet, LGBTI youth frequently face bullying at school and are at higher risk of committing self-harm or suicide because of societal rejection of their sexual orientation. Like all other children, they should be provided with comprehensive sexuality education that meets their needs. Therefore, sexuality education must include information that is relevant to them, scientifically accurate and age appropriate. This means helping children to understand sexual orientation and gender identity and dispelling common myths and stereotypes about LGBTI persons.

By providing factual, non-stigmatising information on sexual orientation and gender identity as one aspect of human development, comprehensive sexuality education can help save lives. It can contribute to combating homophobia and transphobia, at school and beyond, and to creating a safer and more inclusive learning environment for all.

Children and young people have the right to receive comprehensive sexuality education

International human rights bodies have established that children and young people have the right to receive comprehensive, accurate, scientifically sound and culturally sensitive sexuality education, based on existing international standards. These include the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Violence against Women, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and, at European level, the European Social Charter and the above-mentioned Lanzarote and Istanbul Conventions.

The right to receive comprehensive sexuality education derives from a range of protected rights, such as the right to live free from violence and discrimination, the right to the highest attainable standard of mental and physical health, but also the right to receive and impart information and the right to quality and inclusive education, including human rights education. In a 2010 report on sexuality education, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education stressed that “sexual education should be considered a right in itself and should be clearly linked with other rights in accordance with the principle of the interdependence and indivisibility of human rights.” The need for sexuality education is also acknowledged in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development of the United Nations and is necessary to achieve several of the goals included in the agenda.

Key steps to improve the delivery of comprehensive sexuality education

Comprehensive sexuality education is part of a good quality education. Thus, it should be provided for by law, be mandatory and mainstreamed across the education system as of the early school years. It is of concern that, according to a 2018 survey, sexuality education was mandatory in only 11 out of the 22 Council of Europe member states reviewed.

Opponents to sexuality education often advocate for a right of parents to opt out on behalf of their children from mandatory sexuality education. However, international human rights standards on the right to freedom of religion or belief do not entitle parents to withdraw children from sexuality education classes where relevant information is conveyed in an objective and impartial manner, as also stressed in an Issue Paper on women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights published by my Office in 2017. Therefore, I was pleased to learn that in January 2020, the government of Wales removed the possibility for parents to prevent their children from attending classes as part of the curriculum on inclusive sexuality and relationships.

The curricula and teaching methods should be adapted to the different stages of development of children and take into account their evolving capacity. The 2018 UNESCO International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education covers a range of age groups, from 5 to 8 years old up to 15-18+ years old. As highlighted in UNESCO’s Technical Guidance, it is essential for children to learn about sexuality and safer sex behaviours before they become sexually active, in order to be adequately prepared for healthy and consensual relationships. UNESCO also recommends using participatory and learner-centred approaches that allow children to develop critical thinking.

Information provided to children as part of sexuality education should be relevant and based on science and human rights standards. Sexuality education should not include value judgments or perpetuate prejudices and stereotypes. The European Committee on Social Rights stressed that “sexual and reproductive health education must be provided to school children without discrimination on any ground” and that it should not be used “as a tool for reinforcing demeaning stereotypes and perpetuating forms of prejudice which contribute to the social exclusion of historically marginalised groups and others that face embedded discrimination and other forms of social disadvantage which has the effect of denying their human dignity.” Curricula on sexuality education should also be regularly evaluated and revised, in order to ensure that they are accurate and meet existing needs.

It is essential to provide families with accurate information about what sexuality education really entails -and what it does not- and to explain the benefits for all, not only children. Clearly, if sexuality education is to be accepted and successfully implemented, it should take into account the communities’ and parents’ cultural and religious backgrounds. Therefore, schools should be supported to engage with them, including as appropriate with religious leaders, and to take their views into account as long as they do not contradict the very aims of sexuality education, the best interests of the child, or human rights standards.

It is important to consult and involve young people themselves, first and foremost, to ensure that the content of education that is provided to them is relevant and adapted to their needs. Peer learning can play an important role. For example, the Ukrainian Ministry of Education decided at the end of 2019 to introduce peer education training programmes on sexuality education and HIV prevention in schools, to be delivered by an international youth organisation.

Comprehensive sexuality education should also be provided to out-of-school children and youth. This is particularly relevant for children and young people with disabilities, many of whom, unfortunately, do not yet have access to mainstream education. Their sexuality tends to be ignored, or even perceived as harmful, and they are therefore often deprived of any access to adequate information on sexuality and relationships, despite their heightened vulnerability to sexual abuse and exploitation. Online sexuality education can be a useful tool for out-of-school children, provided they have access to safe and inclusive digital spaces.

Lastly, it is of crucial importance for teachers to receive adequate specialised training and support for teaching comprehensive sexuality education, irrespective of whether part of the teaching is also carried out by external actors. Integrating training on sexuality education in regular teacher training programmes, as has been done in Estonia and Finland, is an effective way of ensuring that all teachers are adequately prepared. The delivery of sexuality education by schools should also be closely and regularly monitored and evaluated.

With challenges and resistance to sexuality education increasing, what is most needed is strong political leadership to remind society that access to comprehensive sexuality education is a human right and that it is for the benefit of all. Sexuality education is about knowing one’s rights and respecting other people’s rights, about protecting one’s health, and about adopting a positive attitude towards sexuality and relationships. It is also about acquiring valuable life skills, such as self-confidence, critical thinking and the capacity to make informed decisions. There is obviously nothing wrong with this.

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New Social Compact

Remote Learning during the pandemic: Lessons from today, principles for tomorrow 

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Education systems around the world reacted to COVID-19 by closing schools and rolling out remote learning options for their students as an emergency response.  New World Bank analysis of early evidence reveals that while remote learning has not been equally effective everywhere, hybrid learning is here to stay.

Going forward, for remote learning to deliver on its potential, the analysis shows the need to ensure strong alignment between three complementary components: effective teaching, suitable technology, and engaged learners.

“Hybrid learning – which combines in-person and remote learning – is here to stay. The challenge will be the art of combining technology and the human factor to make hybrid learning a tool to expand access to quality education for all,” emphasized Jaime Saavedra, World Bank Global Director for Education.  “Information technology is only a complement, not a substitute, for the conventional teaching process – particularly among preschool and elementary school students. The importance of teachers, and the recognition of education as essentially a human interaction endeavor, is now even clearer.”

The twin reports, Remote Learning During the Global School Lockdown: Multi-Country Lessons and Remote Learning During COVID-19: Lessons from Today, Principles for Tomorrow, stress that three components are critical for remote learning to be effective:

  • Prioritizing effective teachers: a teacher with high subject content knowledge, skills to use technology, and appropriate pedagogical tools and support is more likely to be effective at remote instruction.
  • Adopting suitable technology: availability of technology is a necessary but not sufficient condition for effective remote learning.
  • Ensuring learners are engaged: for students to be engaged, contextual factors such as the home environment, family support, and motivation for learning must be well aligned.

The reports found that many countries struggled to ensure take-up and some even found themselves in a remote learning paradox: choosing a distance learning approach unsuited to the access and capabilities of a majority of their teachers and students.

“Emerging evidence on the effectiveness of remote learning during COVID-19 is mixed at best,” said Cristóbal Cobo, World Bank Senior Education and Technology Specialist, and co-author of the two reports. “Some countries provided online digital learning solutions, although a majority of students lacked digital devices or connectivity, thus resulting in uneven participation, which further exacerbated existing inequalities. Other factors leading to low student take-up are unconducive home environments; challenges in maintaining children’s engagement, especially that of younger children; and low digital literacy of students, teachers, and/or parents.”

“While pre-pandemic access to technology and capabilities to use it differed widely within and across countries, limited parental engagement and support for children from poor families has generally hindered their ability to benefit from remote learning,” stressed Saavedra.

Despite these challenges with remote learning, this can be an unprecedented opportunity to leverage its potential to reimagine learning and to build back more effective and equitable education systems. Hybrid learning is part of the solution for the future to make the education process more effective and resilient. 

The reports offer the following five principles to guide country efforts going forward:

Ensure remote learning is fit-for-purpose. Countries should choose modes of remote learning that are suitable to the access and utilization of technology among both teachers and students, including digital skills, and that teachers have opportunities to develop the technical and pedagogical competencies needed for effective remote teaching. 

Use technology to enhance the effectiveness of teachers. Teacher professional development should develop the skills and support needed to be an effective teacher in a remote setting.

Establish meaningful two-way interactions. Using the most appropriate technology for the local context, it is imperative to enable opportunities for students and teachers to interact with each other with suitable adaptations to the delivery of the curriculum.

Engage and support parents as partners in the teaching and learning process. It is imperative that parents (families) are engaged and supported to help students access remote learning and to ensure both continuity of learning and protect children’s socioemotional well-being.

Rally all actors to cooperate around learning. Cooperation across all levels of government; as well as partnerships between the public and private sector, and between groups of teachers and school principals; is vital to the effectiveness of remote learning and to ensure that the system continues to adapt, learn, and improve in an ever-changing remote learning landscape.

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Youth embody ‘spirit’ of 21st century more than parents

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Even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and other global challenges, children and youth are nearly 50 per cent more likely than older people to believe that the world is becoming a better place, according to the results of a landmark intergenerational poll published on Thursday. 

The international survey was conducted by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Gallup, the global analytics and advice firm, and has been released ahead of World Children’s Day on 20 November. 

The Changing Childhood Project is the first poll of its kind to ask multiple generations for their views on the world and what it is like to be a child today.  

Part of the solution 

Henrietta Fore, the UNICEF Executive Director, said that despite numerous reasons to be pessimistic, children and young people refuse to see the world through the bleak lens of adults. 

“Compared to older generations, the world’s young people remain hopeful, much more globally minded, and determined to make the world a better place,” she added.  

“Today’s young people have concerns for the future but see themselves as part of the solution”. 

More than 21,000 people in 21 countries participated in the survey, which was conducted across two age cohorts – 15-24 years old, and age 40 and up – and during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Hopeful, not naïve 

Nationally representative surveys were undertaken in countries across all regions – Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America – and income levels.  

 The findings revealed young people are also more likely to believe childhood has improved, and that healthcare, education and physical safety are better today when compared with their parents’ generation. 

However, despite their optimism, youth are far from naïve.  The poll showed they want to see action to address the climate emergency.  At the same time, they are skeptical about the information they consume on social media, and struggle with feelings of depression and anxiety.  

This generation is also more likely to see themselves as global citizens, and they are more willing to embrace international cooperation to combat threats such as the pandemic. 

Aware of risks 

The survey also found children and young people are generally more trusting of national governments, scientists and international news media as sources of accurate information.  

They are also aware of the problems the world is facing, with nearly 80 per cent seeing serious risks for children online, such as exposure to violent or sexually explicit content, or being bullied. 

Young people want faster progress in the fight against discrimination, more cooperation among countries, and for decision-makers to listen to them. 

Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed who are aware of climate change believe Governments should take significant action to address it.  The share rises to 83 per cent in low- and lower-middle countries, where climate impacts are set to be greatest. 

21st century citizens 

In practically every country, large majorities of youth said their countries would be safer from COVID-19 and other threats if Governments would work together, rather than on their own. 

They have also demonstrated stronger support for LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) rights, with young women at the forefront for equality. 

The survey also revealed a strong alignment between the two generations, including on the issues of climate, education, global collaboration, though some of the deepest divides occurred around optimism, global mindedness and recognition of historical progress.   

“While this research paints a nuanced view of the generational divide, a clear picture emerges: Children and young people embody the spirit of the 21st century far more readily than their parents,” said Ms. Fore.  

“As UNICEF prepares to mark its 75th anniversary next month, and ahead of World Children’s Day, it is critical we listen to young people directly about their well-being and how their lives are changing”.

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Seva, a book that is here to heal the world

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It was early in February this year that I visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Walking outside the beautiful golden studded Gurudwara, I couldn’t help but feel awe at the langar that was being served. Prepared for lakhs of devotees everyday. Imagine a kitchen that is equipped to feed around one lakh people everyday, what goes on in the minds of people working at the Golden Temple tirelessly to feed one lakh devotees? There is really only one value behind their actions – Seva. Seva literally translates to helping others and seems simple at the outset. But to understand it deeply, you need to read Jasreen Mayal Khanna’s Seva published earlier this year.

Seva – Sikh secrets on how to be good in the real world by Jasreen Mayal Khanna is a book that is here to heal the world. It is a much needed book during the current times and promotes the values of helping others while outlining basic things that we often forget to do – say thank you daily, embrace joy, work harder than you pray, practice equality at home, help someone everyday, be brave, learn to laugh at yourself and live in Chardi Kala. While other points might seem easy and direct, the last one, Chardi Kala might not be obviously understandable to many outside the Sikh Community. What is Chardi Kala? It is the mental state of eternal optimism and joy. The Sikh Community is popularly known across the world for helping others and Jasreen Mayal Khanna explains more about the Sikh practice of Seva, serving others.

For a few, doing Seva comes naturally because it has been taught to them since childhood. This is especially valid for people from the Sikh Community who, as Khanna tells us in her book, are taught to contribute towards community service from a very young age. For some, they need to ingrain Seva in their life to lead a more balanced and happy life. We often forget that the individual and the community are woven into a beautifully intricate fabric that relies on each other. We are only reminded of how interconnected we are to each other during times of crisis. The COVID 19 pandemic has been a great reminder about how we need each other to survive. Friends, family and complete strangers helping out each other during times of the pandemic has been revolutionarily eye opening. The truth is that we should not need a pandemic to make us realise how interconnected we are. Books like Seva are an ode to that fabric of interconnectedness that is often forgotten in the world today. With ancient Sikh secrets and promoted values of happiness, the book heals readers in ways more than one. You quite literally need to read this book to lead a more balanced life.

While many Indians have been reading books like Ikigai talking about Japanese secrets to life, books like Seva hit far closer to home for Indians. Reading the book is also a testament to secularism since you can understand more about a community that you possibly interact with daily. Moreover, the book also gives you the opportunity to understand more about the values of the community that you can easily pick things from. Seva is not just a read for Indians, but deserves to be popularised across the world. The book will hit the UK market in May 2022.

“I had my first baby in the first wave of Covid. Through the pandemic, I kept seeing examples of Sikhs who were risking their own lives to help absolute strangers. And while I was very proud, I was not overly surprised because doing seva is second nature to Sikhs. I knew that this is a story that the world needs to hear, that my son Azad needs to hear. I wrote Seva because it is, in a way, the solution to the problems of modern life. Read it to believe it. “, Khanna says rightly. She is quite right about this, you need to read it to believe it.

I hope you can enjoy the book with some traditional Sikh Panjiri, the most delicious sweet made from wheat flour and dried nuts.

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