Let's Talk about Sex Education and Human Rights

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“Human rights-based sex education is a key component in preventing gender-based violence and transforming patriarchal, hetero-normative gender relations.”


Sex education is increasingly become a focal point in the so-called culture wars. Missing from political debates on the curriculum of sex education is its role in fulfilling the human rights. Comprehensive, human rights-based relationship and sex education is vital to fulfil a cluster of human rights, particularly rights to equality for women, sexual minorities, transgender and disabled people. This post explores the legal framework for sex education in the England and unearths the linkages between sex education and women and girls’ right to equality.

Under s34 of the Children and Social Work Act 2017, sex education is compulsory for primary and secondary school children in England. On the surface this is a positive development as students will be able to access vital education on healthy relationships and safe, accurate and comprehensive sex education. However, there are two aspects of the regulation of sex education that hollow out this development. First, the curriculum can have regard to ‘the age and religious background of the pupils.’ This means that faith-based schools are allowed to teach sex education ‘within the tenants of their faith.’ Second, the regulations retain the rights of parents to withdraw their children from sex education up to and until three terms before the child turn sixteen. Both of these provisions undermine the transformative potential of sex education.

Human Rights-Based Sex Education Curriculum

The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education calls for a human rights-based approach (HRBA) to sex education. An HRBA opens up a new language and framework in which the right-holder can claim against the state that there is a positive obligation to provide sex education. It also provides insights into the structure and content of sex education to ensure it upholds women and girls’ equality.

Cultural norms praise male promiscuity while female sexuality is restrictive, passive, shameful and degrading. Girls feel stigmatised in expressing their sexuality and in using sexual and reproductive health services. They often feel they do not have the power to insist on using contraception, leaving girls at risk for unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. Girls are often held responsible for any unintended consequences of sexual activity and for the caring of children. Sex education can be a powerful tool to dismantle these negative cultural norms, valorise women’s sexuality and transform gender relations.

Sex education should also form part of a holistic and transformative strategy on gender-based violence (GBV), one of the most pernicious forms of discrimination against women. There has been recent reports on the rise of sexual violence in schools and amongst students and a rise in young girls sharing sexually explicitly images and videos of themselves. Young girls report feeling pressure to produce and send sexually explicitly images of themselves to other people. These images can quickly be shared among a large number of people. This has pronounced implications for the mental and emotional health, and even lives of young girls and women. Sex education can emphasis girls and women’s rights to bodily integrity and autonomy, teach laws on sexual consent, cyber-safety and encourage young people to critically reflect on gender relations. Sex education that adopts a rights-based approach is an important preventive, empowering and transformative measure in a larger strategy to end gender-based violence.

Challenging Religious Exemptions to Human-Rights Based Sex Education

A rights-based approach also raises challenging issues on balancing the parent and child’s rights to religious freedom and belief against gender equality and the other human rights fulfilled by sex education. The UK legal framework allows parents to exempt children from sex education and permits schools to tailor sex education to religious beliefs. There is case law from the European Court of Human Rights that holds that it is within the state’s margin of appreciation to deny faith-based exemptions and to make sex education compulsory so as to ensure the autonomous decision making skills and safety of the child. There is also analogous case law denying faith-based schools exemptions to the ban of corporal punishment from the UK and South Africa. In these cases, the respective courts held that the dignity, security and equality of the child were paramount to religious freedom and belief. Similar arguments can be made to address moral or faith-based exemption to sex education.

Human rights-based sex education is a key component in preventing gender-based violence and transforming patriarchal, hetero-normative gender relations. The language and power of human rights can strengthen and legitimatise claims that sex education is a necessary positive measure to fulfil fundamental human rights. It is unfortunate that the legal framework on sex education in the UK takes one-step forward and two steps back in upholding the rights of boys, girls, women and children A push to conceptualizing sex education as a positive obligation necessary to fulfil human rights can hopefully strengthen the arguments for compulsory sex education throughout all schools in the UK.