By Sanet L. Steenkamp, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture, Namibia
The core responsibility of education systems is imparting the fundamental building blocks of learning, namely the ‘3 R’s: reading, writing and arithmetic. Yet national education authorities are increasingly recognizing that while their core responsibility remains crucial, they must also reach beyond it.
Education systems are being called upon to not only help our children learn essential knowledge and skills to navigate an increasingly complex and inter-connected world, but also protect them from inaccurate information driven by myths and value-laden taboos, or harmful social and cultural norms, such as those surrounding gender and power in inter-personal relationships.
Fulfilling this responsibility means empowering young people with the knowledge, skills and attitudes for them to be able to make healthy decisions in all aspects of their lives – including their sexual and reproductive health. In Namibia, great emphasis has been placed on comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) as an important component in achieving this goal.
Learning about sexuality and relationships is good for young people
The 2016 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report indicated that comprehensive sexuality education was one of the most pressing and universal priorities for the health, well-being and development of young people.
For too many young people, the journey to adulthood can be an obstacle course of challenges. The leading cause of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 years globally is complications from pregnancy, unsafe abortion and childbirth. More than 2 million adolescents are living with HIV. Three in four new HIV infections in adolescents happen in sub-Saharan Africa, and for every five adolescent boys living with HIV, there are seven girls. In Namibia, teenage pregnancy rates among 15- to 19-year-olds is 19%, according to the 2013 National Demographic Health Survey.
Young people benefit from sexuality education that is accurate, frank, non-judgmental and which acknowledges the breadth of life situations and individual circumstances that shape their life choices. The evidence to this effect remains compelling, with the benefits having not only an important preventative role against negative sexual and reproductive health (SRH) outcomes, but also the transformative potential for respectful, non-violent relationships centered on gender equality and human rights.
National education systems must now evolve to deliver good quality, comprehensive sexuality education, as outlined in the recently revised UN International technical guidance on sexuality education. This tool, produced by UNESCO in collaboration with UNAIDS, UNFPA, UNICEF, UN Women, and the WHO, guides national education authorities and stakeholders in the development and implementation of CSE programmes and materials. This evolution also requires the education community to embrace the contribution of CSE to the quality education agenda, which aims to enable all learners to ‘…lead healthy and fulfilled lives, make informed decisions, and respond to local and global challenges’.
Bold leadership spurs country progress
Bold leadership and concerted action are the first steps towards inclusion of CSE in the strategic development priorities of education. In Namibia, the story of CSE has been shaped by such leadership.
Political processes such as the Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA) ministerial commitment on young people’s access to CSE and sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services have shifted the landscape in favour of CSE, both in and out of school.
Fostering an enabling environment for CSE implementation has helped Namibia in raising awareness among adolescents and young people, and the public at large. Moreover, institutional measures, such as the Memorandum of Understanding on the Integrated School Health Programme signed between the Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture and the Ministry of Health and Social Services, has created favourable conditions for inter-ministerial consultation and coordination.
Today, all schools have life skills-based CSE from upper primary to secondary level that is infused across several subjects and delivered by full time life-skills teachers.
A generation of healthy young people supports sustainable development and nation-building
The demographic dividend in Africa will rely on investments in adolescents and youth, and CSE is key to its achievement. Education that engages young people around gender equality, sexuality and sexual and reproductive health is increasingly recognized as beneficial to the well-being of families and communities.
Research suggests that investment that leads to the improved health of young people brings about greater social benefits by boosting productivity, reducing health costs and enhancing social capital. Such capital is in turn reintroduced into education through safe and enabling learning environments, motivated and capacitated teachers, strong school leadership and engaged learners.
For education systems to deliver CSE of good quality they require strong partnerships with other actors, including families, communities, and, other government and non-government bodies. By working together, these partners can help ensure a continuum of care that reaches those on the very margins of society, to be truly inclusive and to fulfil the Sustainable Development Goals’ call to ‘leave no one behind’.