Women’s and LGBT+ rights are under attack. We are experiencing a major backlash by conservative governments around the world, in Poland, the US and now in our own province. Ontario announced it is scrapping the recently updated sexual education curriculum and for the most part reverting to the 1998 curriculum that was developed before social media, same-sex marriage and more widespread public conversations about sexual violence and consent.
This is a step backwards for Ontario students and a violation of their human rights. Not only do an overwhelming majority of parents - 94% in Ontario - support sex ed being taught in schools, but the right to health, information and non-discrimination are protected human rights that are not up for debate or political jockeying.
Comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) is not a luxury. It can be life and death. Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) saves lives and Ontario’s students, and young people everywhere, have a right to it. Ask Glen Canning whose daughter Rehtaeh Parsons took her own life after being bullied following sexual assault. Her father argues that if her assaulters understood consent, or the impacts of disseminating child porn, his daughter could be alive today.
Young people are thirsty for reliable information and increasingly demanding it. CSE responds to their demands. Oxfam has seen it work. It equips young people with the knowledge and skills they need to protect their health and rights. It includes scientifically accurate information about reproductive health and done well, it addresses human rights, gender equality and how to handle abuse or discrimination.
Overwhelmingly, the evidence shows that CSE leads to better health outcomes, including fewer unplanned pregnancies and STI infections.
This evidence and demonstrated impact has created momentum and political commitments around the world to scaling up CSE in both formal and out of school settings. In 2013, 20 countries in Eastern and Southern Africa set targets to quality, comprehensive life skills, HIV and sexuality education. In 2008, ministers of education and health from Latin America and Caribbean signed the Preventing through Education Declaration, committing to delivering sexual health and education services and increasing access to CSE. CSE is mandatory in Germany. Quebec recently announced it would be compulsory by September 2018.
And meanwhile, at the federal level, Canada is becoming a global champion for investing in SRHR. Through its Feminist International Assistance Policy, Canada is making investments in areas that are often neglected, including CSE and SRHR for adolescents. Canada’s current SRHR commitment of $650 million over 3 years, announced in March 2017, is a solid start.
Come September, when Ontario teachers revert to their 1998 sex-ed curriculum, Oxfam Canada will launch Sexual Health Empowerment (SHE) in the Philippines. Women’s rights and youth-led organizations who have led the fight for reproductive health legislation and sexual health services will use comprehensive sexuality education to address shortfalls in SRHR, including adolescent pregnancies, early and forced marriage, unsafe abortion and gender-based violence. It shouldn’t be ironic that Canada is supporting this critical work in the Philippines while young people in Ontario are left behind.
Despite growing evidence, and increasing momentum, holding ground in this area has never been more critical. In Canada and around the world, SRHR continues to be politicized and hard fought gains are not guaranteed. There is sustained push back to dismantle secular, legal frameworks and water-down policies that uphold equality. While international conventions enshrine and protect SRHR, conservative values and deeply rooted gender norms and attitudes mean that billions of people do not have their sexual and reproductive rights protected.
Now more than ever, the federal government needs to invest in SRHR and support feminist youth and women’s organizations and movements, at home and abroad, whose advocacy efforts are vital for holding ground. They need resources to challenge negative social norms and fight for adolescent rights. They need sustainable, flexible core funding to fight back.
This backlash is real and we need to step up action urgently. In Ontario, a two-decade old sex-ed curriculum is unacceptable. Globally, adolescents, women and people of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity, need the Canadian government to help them fight to fill critical SRHR gaps. Budget 2019 is the last budget before the federal election. If the government wants to see its global feminist ambitions and leadership sustained, a bold investment in SRHR and the feminist movements fighting for it is a sure way to make their efforts a legacy.
If we want to protect the rights of our kids, we need to give them power.
Dana Stefov, who is a Women’s Rights Policy and Advocacy Specialist and the policy lead on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) at Oxfam Canada. She is a committed feminist that has worked in women’s rights, climate and food justice programming and policy, both in Canada and internationally; and
Alexandra Wilson, who is the Program Officer for the Sexual Health Empowerment (SHE) Project in the Philippines at Oxfam Canada. She has managed programs in sexual and reproductive health and rights, pharmaceutical management, and disaster management in countries like Afghanistan, South Sudan, DR Congo, Mali, and Ethiopia.