Nigeria and Mississippi are a world apart physically, but the rural American state and the African country have much in common when it comes to the obstacles they had to overcome to implement sex education in their schools.
The lessons are particularly relevant for similarly religious and conservative places where people often worry – as they do throughout the world – that teaching young people about contraception and condoms will make them more likely to have sex. The lessons also come as the United States itself is embroiled in an ongoing controversy over whether to fund comprehensive sex education or emphasize the abstinence-only approach. More than half of states in the U.S. require that sex education stress abstinence. Comprehensive sex education in African and other developing countries is more the exception than the rule.
Sex education does not cause more sex
Although people often worry that sex education will lead to promiscuity, the evidence doesn’t support the notion that sex education makes young people more sexually active – at least not in the United States or in Africa.
Despite the fact that comprehensive sex education has been shown to protect adolescent health, it can be difficult to dispel fears that it will corrupt young people and reduce parental and religious authority. This is particularly so in socially conservative places.
Not all sex education is created equal. The gold standard from a health perspective is referred to as “comprehensive” sex education. The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States defines this as “age-appropriate, medically accurate information on a broad set of topics related to sexuality including human development, relationships, decision making, abstinence, contraception and disease prevention.”
Comprehensive sex education has been shown to delay the age of the first sexual encounter, increase use of condoms and contraception, and reduce rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
Comprehensive sex education is very different than abstinence-only education. Abstinence-only education, in best-case scenarios, teaches the same life skills but without reference to contraception. Most of the research on abstinence-only education finds it to be less effective than comprehensive sex education in delaying the first sexual encounter, increasing condom use or reducing the number of sexual partners.