The Insider’s Guide to the UNESCO Guidelines

Today on International Women’s Day, we focus our attention on gender equality and women’s and girl’s empowerment. Currently 21 million girls between 15-19 years in the global south get pregnant and 214 million women do not get the modern contraception means they need. Education is a contributive factor that gives women the power to make their own choices, also over their own bodies.

As advocates and implementers then, we are always looking for the best way to make empowerment practical. In this article we review a new tool to making sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and gender equality practical: the new UNESCO ‘International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education’. To understand what these guidelines are, we present an insider’s look through a double interview with two Dance4Life experts who helped shape them: Doortje Braeken, Supervisory Board Member at Dance4Life and Marina Todesco, Monitoring & Evaluation Coordinator.

About the experts

Doortje Braeken is a ‘veteran’ in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights for young people. In 2015 she received the Gold Medal from the World Association for Sexual Health for her major contribution to sexual rights for young people. She has prepared the updated and additional written content of the UNESCO guidelines.

Marina Todesco is Monitoring & Evaluation Coordinator at Dance4Life. As former associate expert at UNESCO’s section of Health and Education, she was part of the support team that coordinated the revised edition of the guidelines.

Putting CSE back on the map
Doortje Braeken, starts off with why we need to be talking about the UNESCO guidelines today: “The new UNESCO guidelines are putting comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) back on the map and under the attention of governments and the NGO sector. The guidelines are very useful for SRHR advocacy as they provide the latest evidence on SRHR and CSE.“Basically, these new guidelines can be seen as a ‘how to’ guide for both the SRHR sector and governments to make sure the best possible type of CSE is implemented. Any NGO or government organisation who signs on to these guidelines can be held accountable for their implementation. Doortje Braeken further explains: “Because of this evidence-based nature, you can also use them for your own programmes as a sort of checklist. And of course, as the basis for your sexuality education curricula within and outside of school settings.”

More evidence, positive language, focus on young people
Of course, this is not the first time that UNESCO has designed CSE guidelines likes these. The previous UNESCO guidelines were created in 2009 and much has changed in our thinking around comprehensive sexuality education since then. Marina Todesco: “Evidence for the 2009 guidelines was based mainly on CSE programmes implemented in the US, while the new 2018 version includes studies from low or middle income countries too.” Doortje Braeken adds: “In 2009 the guidelines were created as a response to the AIDS epidemic and so were much more focused on HIV. Now we see a shift from HIV prevention to the much wider field of SRHR, sexuality and sexual rights.” Marina Todesco: “This is important because the language of the new guidelines has moved on from one focused mainly on risk-prevention and the negative consequences of unsafe sex, to a much more positive focus on well-being, youth empowerment and the recognition that sexuality is a positive thing. This is great as now the guidelines focus on giving young people choices, tools and knowledge on how to relate positively to sex.”

“There is now attention for masturbation and pleasure in the guidelines, which is a huge step forwards”

Brave move: attention for pleasure, emotions and gender equality
The UNESCO guidelines support young people to relate positively to sex, and even a step further. Doortje Braeken: “There is now attention for masturbation and pleasure, which is a huge step forwards.” She continues: “The concept of sexuality education is now much broader, there is room for new topics as: the perception of young people, emotions, Gender Based Violence (GBV), contraception, mental health and the role of social media. This is a brave act of UNESCO!” Truly how many new topics are included, you discover when digging further into the guidelines. Marina Todesco, shares how gender equality is stressed as a key contribution to young people’s sexual well-being. “The guidelines draw on research, for instance by Nicole Haberland, who demonstrated that CSE programmes which address gender and power dynamics in relationships are much more effective.”

Gender based violence and inclusivity also recognised
Marina Todesco continues to explain how talking about gender means you have to talk about GBV: “This type of violence often leads to negative health and educational outcomes, such as unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, suicides, depressions, school drop outs, lack of attention and low scoring.” Doortje Braeken adds on: “It is important that young people know what GBV is; so that they can recognize it. But a challenge I see, is that the guidelines do not say how you live a life after experiencing GBV and how you can still enjoy sex if you want to.” Besides gender, the guidelines have found a way to address other forms of inclusivity too. As this is a highly contested point globally, Marina Todesco explains how UNESCO approached making the guidelines more inclusive: “Recognising diverse gender orientations, gender disparities and inequalities, bullying, homophobic and transphobic violence, the UNESCO guidelines create awareness around these issues. They offer different forms of guidance to ensure the school as a safe space”. This is all summarised in the five key concepts that make up CSE according to UNESCO, namely: comprehensive, age-appropriate, gender transformative, human rights, and evidence based.

“It is important that young people know what gender based violence is; so that they can recognize it”

An urgent message to NGOs
Our insiders are not all sunshine and rainbows though. The guidelines are, in their opinion, missing a few important elements. “What I find very unfortunate is that (safe) abortion is still not yet addressed. It was in the draft texts, but it was removed,” Doortje Braeken gives as her main criticism. “I think that’s terrible! The occurrence of unsafe abortion is mentioned, but not treated extensively. This is already a huge step forwards for many countries and at least this is something, but at the same time I think that there is a big role for the NGOs here. It is up to Dance4Life and the whole NGO world not to accept this, and to ensure that safe abortion does eventually come into the guidelines.”

Inspiration for action on the ground
According to the new guidelines, CSE can take place both in school- as well as outside of school- settings. Our insiders reflect on what the guidelines mean for Dance4Life’s work. Marina Todesco: “As a part of the SRHR sector, we are aware of the evidence around CSE and have integrated this into our Journey4Life curriculum. This is not merely a CSE curriculum but is broader based on the interconnection between socio-emotional learning, CSE and gender. Our curriculum is interactive using experiential learning methods. We also took UNESCO’s five CSE concepts into account. So it is in line with the guidelines as they acknowledge emotional aspects: feelings, intimacy, the emotional consequences of the many changes in life during puberty.” Doortje Braeken adds: “The Journey4Life curriculum indeed focuses on topics broader than just sexuality: also on personal growth, meeting individual needs, empowerment. I think that’s a very strong move by Dance4Life, although I personally think that they may need to put more emphasis on sexual pleasure and happiness in their approach”. She concludes by recommending to all NGOs that they test their own method against the five key concepts, to see to what extend these correspond. She adds extra persuasion: “All in all, I think that the new guidelines are a good addition to existing curricula and they offer inspiration. That is well done by UNESCO”.

Authors: Rachel Walker and Kari Ingeborg Postma
Photo: Comprehensive Sexuality Education in Nepal, credits: UNESCO