Teaching our children about the ‘S’ word

Published: August 2, 2010
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The assumption that boys and girls under 18 are 'too young' to need sexual and reproductive health information ignores reality

At independence, Pakistan had a poorly educated population and few schools or universities. Although the education system has expanded greatly since then, debate continues about the curriculum, and, except in a few elite institutions, quality remains a crucial concern of educators.

According to data provided by the Ministry of Education, there are 256,088 educational institutions of all categories in Pakistan, with a total enrollment of 37,462,884 students. Despite considerable development in this field, Pakistan still has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the literacy rate in Pakistan is 55 per cent, making the country stand at 160th among the total countries of the world.

For a country that ranks among the bottom 30 of the 192 member countries of the United Nations with regard to the rate of literacy, it is little wonder that discussion on sexuality is often misperceived as being synonymous to pornography and its understanding is mostly limited to the act of sex only.

In Pakistan, human sexuality is the subject of strong ideology and moral views and traditions, often rightly or wrongly presented as part of religion. There is little known about the sexual and reproductive knowledge and behaviours of 12 – 18 year olds. The assumption that boys and girls under 18 are “too young” to need sexual and reproductive health information and services ignores reality and environmental factors and denies young people from acquiring practical knowledge and skills they need to protect themselves and their partners from Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI), pregnancy, unsafe childbirth or abortion , and sexual abuse or violence.

Advocacy efforts over the last decade or so, mostly geared by civil society organizations have been propagating that young people have the right to receive comprehensive information, education, health services, and other social and legal supports regarding their sexual and reproductive health and rights, however lack of empirical evidence has always been a major hurdle in influencing comprehensive change at the policy level. The need to make policy level amendments is all the more pressing in view of the fact that Pakistan is currently undergoing demographic dividend and with over 64 per cent of its population consisting of young people. It is important to design interventions to meet the unique needs of this group.

While Pakistan is one of the 164 signatories of Dakar Education for All (EFA), which very clearly identifies and states “Life Skills” as a basic learning need for all young people, the Government of Pakistan is yet to implement this document in letter and in spirit. It is however encouraging that after concerted efforts from various indigenous and international organisations working on SRH Rights, references to Life Skills Based Education have been included in National Education Policy 2009 and National Youth Policy 2009. Moreover, the Ministry of Education has developed a Life Skills Based Education curriculum for students of grades 9 to 12; however it is yet to be implemented in schools.

Puberty begins in panic

A recent study on the ‘Status of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights’ conducted by an international organisation, World Population Foundation, Pakistan recently manifests that puberty begins in panic for most of the young people, since they almost never have any prior information about the biological evolution of their own bodies. More often than not, young people obtain information about sex and sexuality from a wide range of sources including each other, through the media including advertising, television and magazines, as well as leaflets, books and websites. The research suggests that while some of this information might be accurate, the major chunk of it is misleading – placing the youth at greater risk of abuse, exploitation and acquiring Sexually Transmitted Infections.

The disregard towards the importance of timely sexuality education for young people goes to show that most young people in Pakistan are not made aware of the biological and psychological changes that occur at the onset of puberty, leaving most of them confused, in guilt and most of all open for exploitation. The flip side of the picture also shows that while parents and/or caregivers tend to withhold sexuality-related information, young people always manage to find one or the other source to sate their curiosity.

For a country that is undergoing a youth bulge, Pakistan can no longer afford to ignore the importance of sexual and reproductive health. We can continue to remain oblivious and allow our youth to grow up amid unnecessary confusion or take on the responsibility to ably nurture our young for sustainable growth and development.

Areebah Shahid

Areebah Shahid

An ardent follower of global politics who works with an international development organization and tweets @AreebahShahid

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