How comprehensive sexuality education can help reduce violence

Girls learn about healthy and unhealthy relationships at a “Voice Against Violence” curriculum training in Zambia. Co-developed by UN Women and the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, the curriculum helps young people identify the root causes of violence against women and girls, and prevent it from occurring in their own communities. Photo by: Urjasi Rudra / U.N. Women / CC BY-NC-ND

The importance of teaching comprehensive sexuality education has been recognized with increasing strength in recent years. Across the world, including in the “global north,” young people are agitating in increasing numbers for access to CSE.

Rightly so: at the intersection between sexual and reproductive health and rights, education and service provision, CSE is a vital means through which to engage with young people on the fundamentals of sex, relationships, gender, consent and sexual health. And yet despite growing recognition of its importance, providing good quality CSE still too often eludes us. It’s a tool with significant untapped potential that we’re yet to fully consider.

CSE is usually thought of in terms of its impact on sexual and reproductive health and rights.

However, given its transformative approach to sex and relationships, and its emphasis on empowering young people to be able to make decisions about relationships and think critically about gender, CSE can also have a positive impact on social norms. It stands to reason, therefore, that we should also be looking at whether improved CSE can lead to behavior change, and more specifically, whether it can in fact reduce violence against women and girls.

Getting to the root of the problem

Plan U.K. sought to examine this link when commissioning a piece of research on the subject. The research, combining an analysis of existing evidence with primary research in Cambodia and Uganda, shows that there are indeed signs that suggest CSE could have an impact on violence against women and girls. But in order to realize this, we must review our approach to CSE programs and their design, ensuring that they are achieving all that they can. How do we do so?

The causes of violence against women and girls are complex, though commonly understood as being deeply rooted in unequal gender relations and social norms, such as harmful notions of masculinity and rigid gender roles. There is evidence from Plan’s programs in Cambodia and Uganda that CSE can promote gender equitable attitudes — with students likely to support equal access to education for boys and girls, for instance — as well as, in the Cambodian context, improving attitudes regarding LGBTI rights.

In the same way, CSE has the potential to improve young people’s awareness of and attitudes toward VAWG, reducing tolerance of abuse including intimate partner violence, sexual violence and child, early and forced marriage. A CSE and life skills program in India found that sexual harassment of women and girls declined by 36 percent post-intervention, according to a 2008 study.

The challenge we have is to ensure that all programs that include CSE are delivering in these respects. At present most do not currently go far enough in transforming gender relations, and so CSE’s full potential remains thwarted. Curricula often do not sufficiently engage with gender and social norms which underpin VAWG, and in many contexts teaching on sexual rights is extremely limited, with discussion of the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex excluded.

Inclusive and empowering

In order for young people to translate broad or hypothetical learning on gender equality into real changes in their relationships, this gap must be addressed.

CSE has similar potential in terms of helping to develop practical life skills. Good quality CSE can improve confidence, self-efficacy and decision-making, again with links to improved gender relations and a reduction in VAWG. In particular, good CSE may empower young women and young men to negotiate the terms of sexual activity, understand the importance of consent, and learn how to resist peer pressure to engage in or accept VAWG.

But the ability of young people to use these skills in their everyday lives is restricted by the unequal gender norms which devalue women’s choices and place rigid social expectations on young people’s sexuality. Such deeply entrenched social norms — such as those which deny or stigmatize female sexuality and promote violent notions of masculinity — may also impact on the quality of CSE delivery and hinder open and nonjudgmental discussions around youth sexuality and relationships. These are challenges we must tackle head on in our program design and delivery.

Community impact

As well as for the individual, CSE holds significant opportunities at a community level. Community integrated approaches to CSE can influence adults, in particular teachers and parents, as well as young people, to hold more positive attitudes toward VAWG. Programs which have successfully engaged the community beyond school have shown this to be possible — but this element of CSE provision is not often the focus.

Too frequently, adults’ attitudes in fact pose a significant barrier to CSE provision and impact, not least where cross-generational and transactional sex leaves adolescents less able to consent to, refuse or negotiate safer sex. Again, a recalibration of how we approach CSE program design — thinking beyond the classroom and about the whole community — offers significant possibilities for progress in reducing violence.

Though less examined, CSE can also help to improve reporting of and response to violence against women and girls, through providing information on and linkages to other relevant organisations and services. Successful interventions such as school clubs with a rights-focused approach are yielding results in this way.

For example, Raising Voices’ “Good School Toolkit” has reduced violence by school staff by 42 percent in the Luwero District of Uganda, and in a 2011 research, schoolchildren reported feeling safer at school. With low reporting of and weak response to VAWG a persistent problem, such approaches should be developed and strengthened.

In promoting positive attitudes to gender equality, improving life skills, strengthening reporting and response, and effectively engaging the wider community, there are clear pathways for the provision of CSE to be improved, such that its impacts are more broadly felt than in the realm of sexual and reproductive health and rights alone.

Specifically, in the battle to reduce violence against women and girls, CSE can be a valuable tool. Yet to exploit this potential we must ensure that programs are designed with all the right goals in mind. The increasing focus on the value of CSE is entirely justified — but let’s make sure it delivers on all fronts.

To read additional content on global health, go to Focus On: Global Health in partnership with Johnson & Johnson.

About the author

  • Tanya Barron

    Tanya Barron is CEO of Plan U.K. since January 2013. Previously, she was international director at Leonard Cheshire Disability, and in 2003 was given the European Woman of Achievement (Humanitarian) award. Barron also holds various trusteeships and is currently a board member of the World Bank's Global Partnership on Disability and Development.