Going by persistent debate surrounding whether or not sex education should form part of curriculum for basic students in Nigeria, there is no doubt that the Federal Government should not deem its decision on the issue as closed. The Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu needs to revisit his earlier directive that the subject be excluded from schools’ curriculum. One issue that continues to trouble the minister’s directive is that, from all indications, it was issued without the benefit of input by relevant stakeholders and this is curious considering that stakeholders, including those at international levels, contributed, over many years, to the policy on sex education. It would then seem that while various countries are devising ways of achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Nigeria is lagging behind mainly due to an apparent unilateral action of a public officer.
Among other objectives, SDG Goal 3 (target 3.7) and Goal 5 (target 5.6) are focused on sexual and reproductive health. Target 3.7 states: “By 2030, ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care services, including for family planning, information and education and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programmes.” This informs the reaction by Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) rejecting and expressing disappointment over directives by Adamu, to the Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council (NERDC) to remove sex education from the Nigerian educational curriculum.
The CSOs described the development as very unwelcoming, as it erodes the 20 years of progress made by the Ministry of Education and other state and non-state actors to provide wholesome education that meets the needs of learners at different levels. Again, the CSOs argued that “It appears the minister has not been provided appropriate information and advisory by relevant officials about Nigeria’s Family Life and HIV Education (FLHE) curriculum, the journey towards having this curriculum and the impact for adolescents and young people.”
Sexuality education for young people is controversial both religiously and culturally in many societies. But in spite of the controversy and despite the minister’s position that parents should take up responsibility to educate and guide their children on that aspect of education, the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Programme of Action (PoA) supports sexual and reproductive health (SRH) education because of the negative consequences of unsafe sexual activities among young people.
Thus, relevant governments and policy bodies adopted various Programmes of Action (PoA) to expose young people to sexuality education and also provide them with services, which most might or might not have access to. The focus of the new priorities has resulted in a more integrated approach to sexuality education issues. In particular, sexuality education; information, education and communication (IEC), and information and communication technologies (ICTs) have been adopted, reflecting the intensified efforts to expose young people to sexuality education through integrated approach.
Thus, sexuality education is intended to improve knowledge and understanding of sexual development, human reproduction and healthy sex behaviour among adolescents. The explicit aim of sexuality education programmes is to help young people practise responsible sexual behaviour and possibly delay sexual activity.
According to UNFPA, comprehensive sexuality education is the crossroads at which education and health meet. It is vital to advancing health outcomes and gender equality. It gives young people the tools they need to have healthy lives and relationships. It helps them navigate life-changing decisions about their sexual and reproductive health. Consequently, it could be claimed that sexuality education has transformatory potential.
Furthermore, according to the organisation, it leads to reduced transmission of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV, unwanted pregnancy, abandoned babies, trauma occasioned by child care, dangers of unsafe and illegal abortion. These negative consequences of early sexual activities, call for greater openness about issues of SRH. So, why the attempt to remove sexuality education from Nigerian school curriculum, one would ask? The ready answer is basically that the contents of sex education curriculum are sometimes perverse, such that observing them strictly may occasion greater danger and risks to young people than the ills it intends to cure. The question then would be: is it impossible to remove the bad portions of the curriculum with a view to giving young students real beneficial exposure to sexuality education? This should be possible and perhaps better than throwing away the baby along with the birth water.
Also, the FLHE curriculum was approved by the same National Council on Education in 2002 because of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the constant rising incidents among adolescents and young people. Has this problem been eliminated or is it being compounded by sex education? The minister should present empirical argument in this respect. It is important that parents, teachers, traditional and religious leaders, policymakers and implementers across all states of the federation are actively involved in the drafting of the content of the FLHE. There should be continuity in governance.
Comprehensive sexuality education should be about relationships, human rights and gender equality. It is about culture, society and sexuality; about opposing violence and staying safe. It is about developing life skills, such as critical thinking, communication and negotiation; about self-development, self-confidence and decision-making; about taking responsibility and showing empathy. It nurtures positive attitudes and values, including open-mindedness, respect for oneself and others, and a positive attitude toward sexual and reproductive health and wellbeing. These are fundamental values and skills everyone needs, including young people.
It is equally important however that the teachers to impact this knowledge are adequately trained to prevent passing the wrong information to children. Therefore, FLHE curriculum is not the problem; rather it is the implementation; and conversations and action should be on how to improve the quality of the delivery of the FLHE programme and its long-term sustainability, not a rollback of policy gains.
Implementation should adopt diverse approaches that take into account the situation and life experiences of young people. These vary based on their family situation, socio-economic status, sex, ethnicity, geographical location, religious and cultural beliefs, sexual orientation and gender identity and other factors.
Government can refocus attention on FLHE implementation and ensure that the contents used for teaching the subject are recalibrated and contextualised to prevailing realities to reduce the chances of young people being amoral. In addition, contents should empower girls and boys to respect diversity, inclusivity and awareness of the patriarchal and religious norms that all too often impede the rights and well-being of women and girls. All said, different populations have different sexuality education needs and the information provided to them should be relevant to their realities to ensure that no one is left behind.
Guidelines for impacting the right sexuality education should be extended to the publishing industry and religious leaders and organisations. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but there are enough sizes for everyone and nations that want to realise the sexual and reproductive health rights of young ones. The minister of Education should work with relevant stakeholders to pick the correct size that fits Nigeria.