In the absence of formal policies, grassroots projects and individuals around the world are stepping in to plug the gaps. Here are six programmes working to teach young people in developing communities about their sexuality and their rights.
The situation: Society tends to view people with learning difficulties as asexual and this can lead to abuse. Up to 90% of people with intellectual impairments are estimated to experience sexual abuse. And in Romania, the demand for support for people with learning difficulties far outweighs supply, leaving thousands at risk. Despite this, sexual education is not taught in many special needs schools around the world, including Romania.
The programme: Local communities have partnered with the IPPF, to help protect young people with intellectual disabilities and to empower them to understand their sexuality. The keep me safe programme focuses on consent, boundaries and sexuality.
Eugenia Behar, a psychologist who works on the programme and has an autistic daughter, says: “We use writing, language and pictures to talk about relationships. In the beginning they can find it a bit uncomfortable and laugh. Then they get interested and speak their mind.”
The initiative uses dolls, art and activities. Carmen Surianu, director of the programme in Romania, says: “We teach consent by forming a circle and inviting someone into the centre. We explain that this is your personal space and that people should ask your permission to come closer.”
The situation: Sex education is a taboo subject and, although officially included in school programmes, in reality it is often non-existent. One resulting problem is that use of contraception has fallen rapidly. High costs, religious influence and a distrust of modern contraceptives as a hangover from Soviet times – when healthy family planning options were limited – are not helping the situation, says Jens-Hagen Eschenbaecher, regional adviser for the area at the UNFPA. The result is that young people are left vulnerable to STIs and unplanned pregnancies.
The programme: Partnering with the IPPF, a group of young volunteers go into schools and talk to small groups of children aged 14-15 about pregnancy, STIs, contraceptives and sexuality. They encourage discussion and let the children do most of the talking.
“We teach about STIs by writing the symptoms down on paper and laying them on the floor,” says Bula Anarbekova, a 23-year-old student volunteer. “Then we ask the teens to get into groups. Each group is told they are a certain STI and they have to gather the symptoms.
“Young people are the best people to talk about these things because we know what their problems are. We’ve been there before – some of us are still there. The response from the children is great because no one else talks to them about these topics.”
The situation: The subject of sex and sexuality is so sensitive in the Middle East that few formal educational programmes exist. However, young people are finding creative ways to communicate using the internet and social media.
The programme: When Ashraf Abumaraq, 32, an employee at a software company in New York, worked for an educational NGO in Palestine for 11 years, he witnessed a lack of knowledge around sex education and wanted to use his technical skills to help. He set up Karaz, an Arabic website with information and advice about sexual and relationship issues.
“I saw the problems that a lack of knowledge was creating,” he says. “For example, one young woman I met went to see a marriage counsellor and said: ‘I’m 25 and I have six children, make it stop’ – because she hadn’t been taught about contraception.
“There’s a lot of stigma so I wanted to help people to educate themselves from the privacy of their home. At first there was a lot of push-back. People were offended and kept trying to take down the website. There were also rumours about me, including that I was trying to set up a sex shop. It took around six months for people to come around. Now communities in Palestine, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria want to help.”
The situation: More than one in three 18-year-olds already have a child or is pregnant, according to a report from Education As a Vaccine (Eva). Abstinence-based sex education “exists on paper” in schools, says Fadekemi Akinfaderin-Agarau, who founded Eva. However, contraception, consent, gender equality and LGBT issues are not taught.
The programme: MyQuestion, set up by Eva, allows young people to get answers to their questions about sex by text, phone or social media. It means that young people can get anonymous advice from any location at any time.
Seven advisers man the service every day and young people can ask questions about anything, from sex and contraception, to periods and relationships. The service is popular – Eva says that 12,000-15,000 questions are sent by text alone each month – because it provides accurate, non-judgmental and confidential information anonymously.
“We want to fill in the gaps because sex education in Nigeria doesn’t focus on your rights,” says Akinfaderin-Agarau. “And often teachers skip over things they are uncomfortable with.”