When I was 16, I thought: ‘Some topics in physics have no benefit for students throughout their life. For instance, we had a chapter in physics regarding ‘mirrors.’ My question is how important is it to know about the type of pictures in a curved mirror, for instance? I think that these topics can be removed from our textbooks and issues related to the life skills could be included instead, you know.’ All of what we receive as health education at school is limited to few short talks in the entire period of schooling. From my point of view, holding these classes just once regarding issues like puberty and preventing AIDS does not meet youth’s needs.
Sexual Health Education (SHE) has been recognized by international organizations as a human right, a necessity for development, and a promoter of equity . Nevertheless, most young people do not receive sufficient education for their sexual lives. Worldwide, earlier sexual maturity and marriage at later ages may cause more young people to engage in sex before marriage.
There are a number of sex education curricula worldwide that are appropriate for schools, as they provide only medically accurate information and do not present any particular moral view as better than any other. These curricula have been used successfully in Western Europe, where teen pregnancy rates are consistently low. An appropriate and effective curriculum teaches age-appropriate information (for instance, teaching first graders the names of all their body parts and explaining appropriate and inappropriate touching) and exposes students to different decision-making models. It’s a public health responsibility to ensure that the public has medically appropriate information. Families with specific moral views need not feel threatened by children learning scientific/medical information, as families can teach how their particular morals fit in with the medical aspects of sexuality. But in other parts of the world, there is a different story.
In Iran like in most other Muslim countries, SHE for unmarried people is socially unacceptable because of the religious and cultural prohibitions of premarital sex, in particular for girls. In these countries, denial of sex before marriage among young people and failure to achieve adolescents’ sexual health is a main barrier to combating HIV and AIDS. SHE programs are limited and inadequate, and where they are meant to be taught, teachers skip them over because they are uncomfortable teaching sexual subjects. Recent evidence shows that pattern of HIV transmission in Iran has changed from injecting drugs to unprotected sexual contact among young people.
I believe that ignoring health education, in particular SHE, was one of the drawbacks of the Iranian educational system. As the result , for majority of adolescents puberty become an unpleasant experience. Adolescents believed that many of their sexual issues and dilemmas could be sorted out through providing SHE at schools. Most of them are in need of education on how to go about the issues surrounding puberty. The society, families and of course the adolescents themselves are responsible to work together in order to create an atmosphere in which correct information on puberty and the associated issues are readily accessible. These needs are largely unmet.
One of the most important reasons for the silence about sexuality is the concerns of adults that SHE can encourage adolescents to be sexually active. But studies show that adolescents themselves do not think so. They believe that having early and accurate sexual information does not increase the likelihood of wanting to experience sex, whereas having limited knowledge increases students’ curiosity and likelihood of desire to have sex.
I grew up in an open minded, well educated, middle class family in Tehran, Iran. Despite these advantages, I had many bad experiences during puberty since I didn’t have enough information about it. My parents also hesitated to talk to me about these issues. For example I slouched because I was ashamed of my breasts. I clearly remember feeling bad when the grown-ups talked about my bodily changes. I used to have back pain and headaches during menstruation and that would worry me. I usually spoke about these issues with my friends, but they were unable to offer any help, considering they were all my age and didn’t have much information like me. At that age, I was also very curious to know about boys and my mind was filled with questions about love, fantasies and sexual relationships. But I had no clear idea about sex.
Like me, adolescents in Iran overwhelmingly have an urgent need for information about virginity, romantic relationships, knowing opposite sex, and handling sexual desire. Asian cultures share stigmatization of sexuality and condemnation of premarital and extramarital sex, especially for daughters whose family’s honor depends on their chastity. Critical importance of virginity makes adolescents rate this topic as the most important subject to be included in the SHE content.
Education is a prime source of knowledge. Stopping young people from exploring the normal is ridiculous. Closing their minds and filling them with misleading information and brainwashing them to believe that sex before marriage is bad is unacceptable. I believe that sex education should be taught in schools because it is needed to provide the correct information and accurate facts that might already be available to children through television, the internet and from other students. Adolescents today have access to countless avenues of information, some of which may not be correct and can lead to mistakes in later life. When sex education is taught in school at the proper time it can dispel many rumors and lies about sex and provide a realistic view of sex and reproduction. It is more important that they know about safer sex, STDs, puberty and the reproductive system. Let’s open their minds and educate adolescents properly. Let them make decisions and find what’s right for them.
This article was originally published in our December 2013 issue.