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The voices of young people matter in reforming Pacific and Australian sexuality education

By Maria Nguyen

Many young people receive confusing and conflicting information about sexuality. They often feel ill-prepared to deal with ‘real-life’ issues occurring in their relationships and unwanted sexual situations. Sexuality education which does not prioritise developing skills and healthy attitudes, but instead tip-toes around sensitive topics, will only continue this cycle. While there are governmental efforts being made to improve the sexuality education curricula in Australia and Pacific countries, there is currently a lack of authentic and meaningful engagement with children and young people to gain their perspectives.

Earlier this year in Australia, youth activist Chanel Contos sparked the online campaign 'Teach Us Consent' which created a groundswell of support for change to New South Wales’ sexuality education curricula. Over 6000 testimonies were shared to this campaign, recounting a range of appalling experiences of sexual harassment and assault from victims during their school years.

In many Pacific countries, young people experience poor sexual and reproductive health outcomes, including high rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), sexual and gender-based violence, and unintended pregnancies. Research by Pacific Women found that between 64% to 79% of women and girls in some Pacific countries including Tonga, Samoa, Kiribati, Fiji, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands have experienced physical and / or sexual violence in their lives. Issues such as domestic violence have been spotlighted by youth initiatives, including drama productions ran by Solomon Island’s Dreamcast Theatre and Vanuatu’s Wan Smolbag Theatre, to promote respectful relationships and gender equality through drama. Whilst Pacific youths have innovated ways to teach about sexuality outside of schools, it is vital that the health and wellbeing needs of young people are recognised by formal education systems as well.

However, the topic of sexuality remains shrouded by controversy and public concern in school settings. Myths, such as that teaching about sex will bring on earlier sexual activity, hinder the roll-out of effective sexuality education. Various case studies from a study in rural Vanuatu illustrate how sexual health services remain largely stigmatised as some individuals, or their families and communities, believe it facilitates promiscuity and infidelity. Concerns about sexuality education are also raised by some parents and community members in Australian communities- some who believe that schools should promote abstinence. The myth that sexuality education will promote earlier sexual activity has been debunked by various studies which suggest that CSE leads to safer sexual behaviours and can actually delay a young person’s sexual debut.

Another hurdle is built on the misconception that CSE deprives children of their ‘innocence.’ However, receiving accurate, reliable and age-appropriate information can benefit all young people- from early primary school to late secondary school. Without timely sexuality education across all year groups, children and youths can receive conflicting or even damaging messages from unreliable sources.

Many of these myths stem from a misunderstanding of what CSE teaches young people. It’s important to understand what CSE encapsulates and what it does not. CSE does not promote promiscuity in any way. A good sexuality education should also not be limited to cold, scientific facts about reproduction and the development of the human body.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) international technical guidance on sexuality education, CSE covers a wide range of concepts including relationships; values, rights, culture and sexuality; understanding gender; violence and staying safe; skills for health and wellbeing; the human body and development; sexuality and sexual behaviour; and sexual and reproductive health. When taught effectively, CSE promotes wellbeing, emotional development and safety.

In the Australian and Pacific context, it is a critical time to involve student voices in the development and implementation of sexuality education. Australia is yet to create a consistent, national approach to CSE aligned with the 2018 UNESCO technical guidelines. Many Pacific countries are currently developing and piloting ‘Family Life Education (FLE) to cover sexuality education. This includes Vanuatu, which is creating its FLE syllabus for senior secondary students; Samoa, which is establishing teacher training committees to roll-out FLE in schools; and the Solomon Islands, which is currently reviewing its FLE curriculum and guides for teachers.

Although curriculum review and reform processes often involve consultations with teachers, parents, academics and community leaders, there is a lack of meaningful engagement with children and young people. Surveys, youth-led organisations, and inviting students to consultation groups can amplify the voices of children and young people. Policies addressing the health and wellbeing of youths, such as Tonga’s and Vanuatu’s new National Youth Policies, can be used as a stepping stone to improve youth involvement in curriculum reform about sexuality education. Such strategies can help determine whether or not students feel safe and supported at school.

Without a trusting and supportive environment, conversations about sensitive topics with students cannot occur. Moreover, children and young people need to feel that their learning interests and concerns are heard. Without engaging children and young people in decisions regarding their education, it’s likely that well-meaning lessons will fall on deaf ears.

In addition, designing effective sexuality education requires a collaborative approach with the education programs that may already exist beyond the boundaries of the classroom. Youth services and organisations, such as the Republic of the Marshall Islands’ Youth to Youth in Health and Fiji’s Rainbow Pride Foundation, play an important role in providing young people with reliable information, resources and services to manage their sexual health and wellbeing. Out-of-school sexuality education is especially valuable for children and young people who are vulnerable and marginalised. This includes people with disabilities and those who are already disengaged from formal education systems. A consistent approach between in-school and out-of-school sexuality education within Australia and the Pacific is paramount to ensuring all individuals, regardless of their circumstances, receive the opportunity to develop their health literacy.

As Australia and the Pacific look to strengthen sexuality education, sharing knowledge and skills between the countries is advantageous to all. While each country has its own unique context, countries can benefit from learning from others about how they are enabling and empowering young people to participate in improving sexuality education. In particular, dialogue between Australian and Pacific young people will bring light to the growing need and demand for effective sex education in the region.

The current reforms to sexuality education occurring in Australia and the Pacific will have an enormous impact on the health, wellbeing and safety of young people. These changes aim to address deep societal and health issues such as gender-based violence, gender inequality, sexual harassment and assault, unintended pregnancies and the spread of STIs.

If these well-meaning reforms to sexuality education aim to enhance the quality of life for young people, one question remains. When will their voices matter?

This piece was originally published in APYD's inaugural anthology Raising Our Voices.


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