From ‘consent football’ to ‘pin the organ on the body’: sex education around the world

As the British debate around how to talk to children about sex intensifies, teachers and students explain how its done across the globe

Adults have long been squeamish over talking to children about sex. We have a history of complicated and conflicting attitudes: sex has been seen as simultaneously joyous and desirable (so long as it is between a young couple after marriage and in the interest of begetting babies), but also as dark and dirty, something from which children must be protected.

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Religion and paternalism, rooted in a historic cult of virginity at marriage and the ownership of women, continue to influence the debate over sex and relationship education (SRE) around the globe. Even in countries such as the UK, many adults do not feel comfortable with the idea that children can have sexual feelings, particularly if they are LGBT feelings. The parents who object to the government plans for sex education in primary schools talk of the need to protect childhood innocence, as if sex is something corrupting or wrong.

And yet, SRE for children has the power to transform the world. For girls in particular, it is not just about identifying the functions of a penis and a vagina. It is about enabling her to become her own woman, giving her the confidence to speak as an equal: someone allowed to say no, who understands how to access and use contraception. That young woman is then primed to fight for a place in the world, with a job and the number of children she chooses, at the time that she prefers. No wonder male-dominated societies feel threatened.

But this genie wont go back in the bottle. The catastrophic spread of Aids in Africa has led to widespread efforts to teach children about safe sex. Even in countries such as Uganda that refuse to countenance sex education in the classroom, it is happening via NGOs that have picked up the ball literally and are running with it. Here, football, traditionally for boys, has become a gender-leveller and an unlikely means to teach children about relationships and sexuality.

Most people accept that teaching children about sex does not mean they have sex earlier. In fact, it is quite the reverse they learn how not to. And if grownups want to keep any control of the agenda, they need to act, because information about sex has never been more available. Television now does sex education in prime time, from MTVs Shuga in Africa, a popular series exploring young peoples sexual issues and interactions, to Netflixs hit drama Sex Education, about schoolkids first fumbling experiences.

And then there is the internet. No information-vacuum today goes unfilled. As Unesco said in updated guidance last year on comprehensive SRE: Countries are increasingly acknowledging the importance of equipping young people with the knowledge and skills to make responsible choices in their lives, particularly in a context where they have greater exposure to sexually explicit material through the internet and other media.

The progress on education about LGBT sexuality is slower. In many countries, gay sex can lead to prison, or even the death sentence. But in other societies, classroom discussions about boys who feel like girls and girls who want to be boys are increasingly taking place. Young people will demand no less. Last year, during the consultation over the UK governments proposals, children told the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) that the sex education they received was too often based on scare stories. It was about managing a problem, rather than talking about a natural part of life. Nor did it address the identities and experiences of young LGBT people.

As the following stories from around the globe show, sex education is in everyones interest. It brings down birth rates and allows families to be smaller, with the means to educate their fewer children. It allows girls to become women before they start to have babies and it fosters good relationships between people of every and no sexual preference.
Sarah Boseley

Indonesia

Sex
At a school in Jakarta, sex education lessons are mostly made up of games. Photograph: Ulet Ifansasti/The Guardian

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Sex education is not mandatory in Indonesia. In addition, contraception for unmarried couples is difficult to get hold of and abortion is forbidden unless a womans life is at risk or, under certain circumstances, if she is raped. Because schools cannot be seen to encourage extramarital or LGBT sex, SRE is not taught, unless an NGO steps in. Rutgers, the Dutch NGO and specialist in sexual and reproductive health, runs sex education in 38 schools in seven areas in Indonesia. Its programme, which is for 12- to 14-year-olds, takes in sex, relationships, gender issues and emotions.

At SMPN 22, a school in Jakarta, children tell me the lessons provided by Rutgers are mostly made up of games. Muhammad, 13, says he enjoys them. I learned about gender and myself, he says. I learned its OK to date, but you have to know your boundaries. In one game, children pin body parts on to an apron worn by one of their classmates. Teachers make sure to include all body parts, because including only sexual organs could provoke complaints.

Fatma, 13, says she was initially nervous and couldnt say the words penis or vagina aloud, but now she is comfortable talking about her body. Meilazzahara, 13, says she thought pictures of genitals were disgusting before taking part in the sessions. Her favourite game is express yourself, where the class pull different facial expressions to show their emotions. My classmates faces were really funny, she says.

Anita Rakhmi Shintasari, a teacher at SMPN 22, admits she was nervous before starting the sex education lessons. But, since they began, she has seen fewer children drop out because of child marriage or teenage pregnancy. Attendance is also better, because girls learn about menstrual hygiene. Narenda, 13, says she doesnt skip classes any more, because she knows how often to change a sanitary towel. Im excited to go to school and want to go all the time, she says.

A
Since the lessons began, fewer children have dropped out because of teenage pregnancy. Photograph: Ulet Ifansasti/The Guardian

In recent years, Rutgers has been forced by Indonesian conservatives to make several adaptations to the curriculum. It has had to take the word sex out of the title; scrap the brightly coloured cover of a textbook after it was criticised for being too like the LGBT rainbow flag; and redraw educational pictures of penises, after critics complained they were too big, too graphic and had too much pubic hair.

Discrimination against LGBT people is rising the city of Pariaman on Sumatra island last year passed a sweeping regulation banning acts that are considered LGBT. To avoid a backlash, we have to be very careful with the topics we discuss and the language we use, says Nana Nur Jannah, a programme coordinator from Rutgers.

Despite the controversies, teachers, parents and pupils tell me they dont want the lessons to stop. There is widespread violence against women in Indonesia, with 41% reporting that they have experienced physical, sexual, emotional or economic violence, and education is paramount in countering the attitudes that drive this.
Abby Young-Powell

Uganda

In
In Kampala, football is used to teach children about sexual health. Photograph: Alfredo d’Amato/PanosPictures/The Guardian

Im going to need a goalkeeper. One hand shoots up and the rest of the players divide themselves into teams. On a pitch in Nsambya, Kampala, football is being used to teach children about sex. The international agency Soccer Without Borders has been working with child refugees in Uganda since 2008. It uses football as a vehicle for educational development all over the world, helping children of all ages to learn English and preparing them for school.

Once a week, Soccer Without Borders partners with the sexual health organisation Tackle Africa, which works across the continent to teach children about safe sex, reproductive health and consent. Younger groups are mixed gender, while older children are separated to help them feel at ease discussing tricky topics. These sessions offer young people space to ask questions that may be unwelcome elsewhere in the community.

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Delphe Bahaya is leading a session on decision-making within relationships. The group of 10 girls, aged 14 to 16, have all fled conflict in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo. Most had never taken part in a team sport and certainly never received any formal sex education. Ugandas approach to the subject is to ignore it. In 2001, President Yoweri Museveni introduced a programme for sex education, the Presidential Initiative on AIDS Strategy for Communication to Youth (PIASCY), one of the central tenets of which was abstinence. In 2014, he signed an anti-homosexuality act, increasing the penalties for same-sex relationships, which have been criminalised since the colonial era, although the new law was later struck down by a constitutional court. Although HIV is the biggest killer of young people in Africa, discussing contraception is still considered taboo, in and out of education.

In Tackle Africa sessions, each football exercise is woven together with a lesson on sexual health. On the pitch, the girls start shooting with one defender, one attacker and one goalkeeper. Fifteen-year-old assistant coach Rita is in defence. She blocks the ball each time. They switch to two attackers, making things easier. Come on girls, I want to see a goal, she says. The girls get it past Rita, keep it under control, shoot and score.

Calling them in with the whistle, Bahaya links the exercise to sex ed. The choice to pass to your partner becomes the choice to use a condom. The better you communicate, the safer your relationship will be, he explains, after outlining the dangers of contracting HIV. Its up to both of you. Scoring a goal shows they have reached their joint decision. As he is explaining, he uses the phrase playing sex. If you want to play sex, he says, you need to work together.

Tackle Africas drills normalise the language of sex, allowing the girls to ask questions without awkwardness. Is it important to have sex? one asks. If youre not ready, dont, Bahaya says. Another wonders: If youre married, do you still have to agree? He nods. You have to communicate and talk and agree.

Soccer Without Borders and Tackle Africa have faced resistance from parents. It is often hard to get girls to play football, as they have family responsibilities that boys do not cooking, cleaning, looking after younger siblings and parents are often concerned about their bodies becoming too masculine. But, over time, myths about pregnancy, patriarchy and witchcraft have been countered with home visits and hard work. Now, some of the girls who have been through the programme are coaching the younger boys.

After the practice sessions, the students play a match. Programme manager Pius Kadapao tries to pinpoint why this model of learning works. In school, sometimes the session becomes boring and youre dozing. He puts his hand out to stop a ball flying our way. You cant doze on a football pitch.
Kate Wyver

Holland

Primary
Primary schoolchildren in Amsterdam during Spring Fever Week. Photograph: Chris de Bode/Panos Pictures/The Guardian

I am a big bear and I am in love, says the teacher Betty van Zijtveld, drawing a bear on a large piece of paper. I am not in love with another bear, but with a butterfly. But Im too shy to say so. What can I do?

Her four- and five-year-old pupils are thinking hard. Wave at the butterfly? one of them says. Jump at it! another suggests. But that may scare the butterfly, the teacher answers. What can the bear do to express its feelings without chasing the butterfly away? The children decide the bear should give flowers and enthusiastically start to draw them.

Its Monday morning and in De Roos primary school in Amsterdam the Spring Fever Week has begun. This is a national initiative in which every Dutch primary school pupil receives daily lessons in relationships, sexuality and resilience. We want to familiarise children with themes like feelings and sexuality at a very early age, says Elsbeth Reitzema of Rutgers, which is funded by the Dutch government and initiated Spring Fever Week 14 years ago. Research has shown that, when children learn about relationships and sexuality very young, they become sexually active at a later age and make well-informed choices, she says. Open attitudes towards sex education in the Netherlands have led to the lowest number of teenage pregnancies in the EU: 3.2 in a thousand girls and falling. In the UK, the figure is 17.9, more than five times higher.

During Spring Fever Week, SRE is about more than simply explaining how reproduction works. The teachers discuss how to express feelings and set boundaries, but also sexual diversity, self-image and online perils. Each theme is taught in an age-appropriate way. The youngest pupils are told how babies are made, while older ones discuss problems such as sexual abuse.

When Marieke Hollander talks about sexual stereotyping with her class, who are between 10 and 12 years old, she reads a list of words and asks them which apply to boys and which to girls: Sweet, sexy, caring, important, cool, self-assured. Important applies to girls, one girl says. Because women do everything: cooking, washing up, cleaning. All the important things. A boy disagrees: My mother is studying and my father does all the housework.

Hollander goes on to show the children two adverts: one for womens shampoo and one for mens. The class agrees that the ad for women focuses primarily on beauty and that the male ad is all about being cool and self-assured. Is there a difference between what you see in the ads and what you see at home? Hollander asks. Most children think so. With my parents it is the other way around, answers a girl. My mother isnt very interested in looking beautiful, but my father has a good taste in clothes.

Thats true, Hollander says. It can be the other way round.

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In another classroom, Elly de Jong is discussing how to set boundaries with her pupils, who are eight years old. You can like somebody, but still not want that person to come too close, she says. One girl agrees immediately: I hate it when my grandfather hugs me, because his beard stings. Another girl says: I have an aunt I hardly know and I dont like it when she kisses me. Its a strange feeling. And its sticky! The whole class bursts out laughing.

Your body is yours, De Jong says. And you decide what you want to do with it. So if you just want to shake hands with your aunt, thats fine.
Renate van der Zee

UK

Children
Children discuss puberty and sexuality at St Matthews primary school in Cambridge. Photograph: Thomas Duffield/The Guardian

Wet dreams, erections and ejaculations yes, it has been quite a full-on day so far. Jess Hurst, a year five teacher at St Matthews primary school in Cambridge, is recapping the lesson on puberty she taught her nine- and 10-year-old students earlier that morning. What else did we learn is going to happen?

Hands confidently shoot up. Hormones and emotional changes, says one girl. Discharge and periods, says another. It is the fourth day of sex and relationships education week, which covers everything from the reproductive system to the need to challenge gender stereotypes.

St Matthews is a progressive urban state school, but all schools in the UK are set to follow its example from September 2020, when sex education will get its first update in nearly 20 years. Under new government guidelines, it will become compulsory for primary school pupils to be taught about healthy relationships, puberty and keeping safe online. Secondary school pupils will also be taught about grooming, sexual exploitation and domestic abuse, as well as STIs and the impact of viewing harmful content online. Female genital mutilation, eating disorders, drugs, alcohol, sharing private photos, sexuality and mental health problems are also among the topics that are deemed appropriate to discuss in lessons.

However, some parent groups have protested about the changes, with the lobby group Stop RSE calling for the government to protect childhood innocence. There have been other signs that sex education is still not controversy-free in the UK: one Birmingham primary school that taught pupils about LGBT rights as part of a programme to challenge homophobia was forced in March to suspend the lessons until a resolution can be reached with protesting parents.

Teacher
Sex and relationships education week covers everything from reproduction to challenging gender stereotypes. Photograph: Thomas Duffield/The Guardian

Back in St Matthews, lessons on challenging gender stereotypes are taught by members of the Kite Trust, a local LGBT charity. Earlier this week, they spent an hour with pupils defining and then questioning how gender stereotypes have come about, whether they are true and how they make people feel. Angry, devastated and uncomfortable were some of the childrens conclusions.

Alongside this, they have learned about pubic hair, spots, toxic shock syndrome and which drawer of their teachers desk contains the free sanitary pads. Today, the class gather on the carpet as their teacher projects illustrations from Babette Coles picture book, Hair In Funny Places, and reads it aloud. How do you think the character in the book feels when she discovers she is developing at a different pace to her friends? asks Hurst. Annoyed, worried, abnormal, confused and left out, her pupils suggest.

If you could talk to her, what would you say? the teacher continues. Everyones different. It doesnt matter when you develop, it will still happen, answers one child.

Afterwards, the class discuss the stages of puberty and sexual attraction detailed in the book. There are a few giggles, but in general there is a sense that talking openly about periods, breast development and erections with your teacher and members of the opposite sex is a perfectly easy, natural thing to do.
Donna Ferguson

India

In
In a private school in New Delhi, students voice their hopes and fears about relationships, love and sex. Photograph: Monica Tiwari/The Guardian

What would your parents think of you having sex? A classroom of teenagers in Ghaziabad, a suburb of Delhi, ponder the question. Some giggle. Others go red. One girl finally raises her hand. Sex can wait, she says. Career cannot.

Sex education is rare in India. Until recently, most Bollywood films would cut to scenes of honeybees or butterflies communing when lovers retired to the bedroom. But such coyness does not translate to the wider culture this is also the country where, in 2012, the gang-rape and murder of 23-year-old student Jyoti Singh shocked the world. Following that outrage, the number of reported rape cases jumped 26% in 2013. Meanwhile, convictions have remained stagnant. Illegal sex-selection abortions have led to a sex ratio imbalance of 112 boys born for every 100 girls (the norm is 105 boys to 100 girls). Such an imbalance is seen as a factor in crimes against women.

But inside this classroom, in a private school catering to wealthier families, students are given a rare opportunity to voice their hopes and fears about relationships, love and sex guided by their lifeskills teacher, Renu Bhatia. Most say their parents do not characterise love and sex as immoral so much as impractical, getting in the way of preparing oneself for an extremely competitive job market. Until you turn 18, you are completing your secondary education, says Nishan, 17, relaying his parents views. Then you move on to college, then you do another degree.

Even when the time for romance arrives, it need not interrupt your studies, he says. Your parents just click your photo and put it in the matrimonials in the newspaper, he says. Then, when you get married, they want you to have a kid. Season two begins.

Each generation inherits a vastly different world from that of their parents, but in India the gap is especially large. Indians born since the late 1980s have grown up in a country flooded with western pop culture, the internet and promises their country will soon become a superpower. Old ideas about sex and relationships are under severe strain. But those ideas are newer than we think, says Rushi, 16. Sex had been part of our culture, she says. We had the Kama Sutra, which is all about sex as a ritual. Another student, Aahee, 17, blames the stuffy morals of the imperial power that ruled India until 1947. We had the Britishers for many years and, in Christianity, sex is a sin, she says. Being oppressed by such a mindset, it will change you.

Teacher
Who would be thrown out of their houses if their parents got to know they were in a relationship? All hands rise. Photograph: Monica Tiwari/The Guardian

Bhatia asks: Who would be thrown out of their houses if their parents got to know they were in a relationship? All hands rise. In this context, one of the biggest challenges the students say they face is getting reliable information about sex. Todays generation has a decisive advantage over earlier ones. Google is our biggest support, says Aahee. If we dont have Google, we have nothing. The other major source is Indias prolific film industry, which in the past decade has started exploring issues such as sex, womens independence and LGBT Indians. Bollywood is evolving, Nishan says. The audience is maturing. Much of the sex education the students receive involves unravelling ideas of love and relationships gleaned from the big screen, Bhatia says.

The girls are warned against boys too eager to hold their hand or kiss them. Be cautious, go away from this person, Bhatia tells them. Love can be at a distance. It doesnt have to be a touchy kind of thing; dont allow yourself to be taken for granted. The boys are warned against giving into teenage obsessions, calling incessantly or overloading a woman with gifts.

So much is changing in India, but the word sex still scares people off, Rushi says. It is ironic, she adds, because lots of Indians must be having it. We are the second most populated country in the world.
Michael Safi

Nicaragua

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