The UN Commission on Population and Development (CDP) adopted a groundbreaking resolution in support of young people’s sexual and reproductive health and human rights following its April 23-27 meeting. According to the resolution, young people have the right to decide on all matters related to their sexuality. Governments, in turn, should grant young people access to sexual and reproductive services and protect their right to sexuality that is free of violence, discrimination and coercion.
The historic resolution comes on the cusp of the recently released United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report that underlines the daunting challenges facing today’s largest-ever generation of young people -- HIV/AIDS, violence and unintended pregnancy.
So that they can make informed decisions, young people must also have the right to sex education, the UN member states assert. But sex ed is a highly contentious issue worldwide, evident in the number of different approaches used not only from country to country, but also from state to state in the US. Turkey is no different, experts and activists argue, where sex ed is a taboo subject and, for that reason, is experimental and at best sporadic in its implementation.
“Out of the 160 universities in Turkey, with the exception of medical schools and health vocational schools, there are only 15 to 18 schools that have a human sexuality class listed on their academic curriculum. Whether or not they actually offer it is a completely different issue,” Linda Fraim, a psychology professor at Fatih University, told Sunday’s Zaman.
According to Fraim, one university has a sexual and reproductive health center on campus and another university has a sexual and reproductive health education hotline for young people. “This is promising but not enough,” said Fraim on the chasm in the education system regarding sexual and reproductive health education.
Fraim will teach an “Introduction to Sexuality” course next semester in the department of psychology at Fatih University. The class, which she believes is the first of its kind on her college campus, will be offered as an elective course open to the entire university. “Personally, I think it should be a mandatory general education course,” she added. But teaching sex ed in college or even in high school is too late, Fraim and well-known women’s rights activist Pınar İlkkaracan agree.
“Sex ed is not mandatory or universal in Turkish schools. And most of the classes that do exist take place in the eighth grade, when students are between 14 and 15 years old. This is too late,” İlkkaracan told Sunday’s Zaman.
Not only is sex ed not integrated into the curriculum as a standard course, but it usually consists of a couple classes at most. “The teachers assigned to teach sex ed in addition to their normal workloads usually receive no proper training and receive very little pay,” she added. “This is a vey important issue that requires a special training and curriculum.”
Fraim conducted a study last year on the knowledge levels and misconceptions of HIV/AIDS among 1,925 college students in İstanbul and said she was surprised by the findings. According to her research, 21 percent of these students thought HIV/AIDS was a hereditary disease, and 16 percent believed HIV/AIDS was a punishment from God. Most of the student respondents received their information from the Internet.
“Youth who are not properly educated about sex, sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases and protection will not only have misrepresented conceptual constructions of what sex is but also will put other people at risk when having unprotected sex,” Fraim said.
One such misconception, the two experts agree, pertains to the influence sexual education has on a young person’s sexual activity.
“Many people believe sex ed encourages young people to engage in sexual relations,” said İlkkaracan. “The research shows the exact opposite. The more sex ed a young person receives, the later in age they decide to be sexually active. The more sex ed we give to children, the more they are protected.”
In the United States, where this misconception is also common, the National Campaign To Prevent Teenage Pregnancy, after reviewing 250 studies of sex education courses, concluded sex education that discusses contraception does not increase sexual activity. Another common misunderstanding is that sex education classes teach children how to have sex. But that is far from the truth.
“This class aims to educate children, adolescents and young adults. Every child will grow up to eventually become a parent one day. Therefore, they need to be equipped with the proper information so that when the time comes, they too can transmit the proper information to their children,” she said.
The dismal state of sex ed for young people in Turkey and in many countries around the world magnifies the importance and audacity of the recent UN CDP resolution.
“This resolution is important for the entire world, and especially Turkey, when we talk about sex ed. In Turkey, where traditions like honor and virginity are deeply held and issues like early and forced marriages are common, sex ed is very important,” said İlkkaracan. “The state is responsible for educating its young people on their sexual and reproductive rights.”
Both Fraim and İlkkaracan advocate that sex, health and hygiene education begin at an early age, incrementally expanding the curriculum as students grow older and mature.
“By incorporating sexual and reproductive health courses into the Turkish academic curriculum, beginning at junior high throughout college, it is anticipated that the existing lack of information may improve to better levels and that the misconceptions among university students will be reduced,” writes Fraim in her report.