Comprehensive Sexuality Education and Gender Equality in Nigeria
Tigger Warning: Sexual Assault
Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) is a critical global intervention. Not only does it have the power to safeguard young people from negative behaviour, but it also empowers them with vital knowledge and skills, and helps them make informed choices about their health. Reports by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) have shown that CSE has the potential to advance gender equality and improve health outcomes. This is because CSE offers knowledge and skills on sex and sexuality that are empowering, safe, and inclusive for all young people – especially girls who face vulnerabilities linked to early pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, female genital mutilation (FGM), or other forms of sexual violence.
I have worked in Nigeria for the past five years and there is a continuous debate over sexuality education. Sexuality education was first introduced in government junior secondary schools in 2003 under the Family Life and HIV Education (FLHE) Curriculum. This effort has been met with strong resistance from conservative religious and cultural groups who want nothing done to promote sexuality education in schools. Despite this, some gains have been reported such as higher knowledge scores on health issues related to sexuality and reproduction, acknowledging gender roles and equality, the ability to delay sexual gratification and pleasure, boys being less prone to pressuring girls for sex, and girls being more emboldened to say no to boys who demand sex.
Building on the gains of the FLHE Curriculum, UNFPA Nigeria supported the Lagos State Government to develop a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum for formal vocational schools in the state. To provide some context, vocational schools in Nigeria are usually attended by out-of-school youth, and, as such, the students tend to practice more vices than their other counterparts. With relevant stakeholders and Youth Representatives like myself leading the process, the curriculum was launched in 2019. Currently, the pilot phase of the implementation has been completed across 5 vocational schools with a noticeable impact.
This curriculum was also adopted by the Sustainable Impact Development Initiative, a youth-led and youth-focused organisation working to advance the reproductive health of adolescents and young people. I remember walking into the Agege Youth Centre where we had been holding biweekly meetings with adolescent girls for the Girls Corner project—in the city of Lagos, there are urban slums like Agege that are sprawled across the landscape. On that day, something was off. The girls in the class were speaking in low tones and exchanging secretive glances. As you would expect, I became quite curious. During the break, the girls shared the experience of Grace* who was not in class on that day. An older family friend had attempted to rape her over the weekend, and she had deployed life skills that had been taught in the course of our sessions to manage the situation. Her friends were also able to provide her with psychological support and tips on what to do after.
Such stories were not uncommon during interviews with the adolescent girls and young women at the pilot vocational schools too. The biggest behavioural changes were noticed in attitudes towards harmful traditional practices like female genital mutilation, unprotected sex, and life skills application. With these profound impacts, it is important to ensure strict implementation of the curriculum nationally to scale the results.
Comprehensive sexuality education remains a critical component of quality education and investing in its inclusion in national curriculums is a ripple investment towards achieving gender equality.
Funmilayo facilitating a CSE topic during Sustainable Development Initiative's Girls Corner project.