With a small yet significant change in our education system, the new school year is commencing. The inclusion of sexual education in high schools and technical schools – a subject taught from early childhood through primary education and in high school since 2011 – has proven beneficial according to data from "K," leading to, among other outcomes, an increase in reported cases of child sexual abuse. However, discussing gender relations with children still remains a sensitive topic in Cyprus, causing concerns for parents. "K" provides comprehensive insights into the content and implementation of sexual education courses, along with evidence highlighting its efficacy in safeguarding children's well-being.
Between 2005 and 2010, the percentage of sexually active fifteen-year-olds remained stable in Western European countries, while it increased in Eastern European countries.
Parents hold two major concerns regarding sex education lessons: the appropriateness of content for their children's age and development, and the qualifications of the instructors delivering these lessons. President of the "Voice" Council, Mrs. Anastasia Papadopoulou, expressed these concerns, acknowledging that it's natural for well-intentioned parents to worry about their children's welfare, especially due to circulated misinformation. Mrs. Papadopoulou clarified that the first concern is unfounded and addressed the second by explaining that the Pedagogical Institute has been providing specialized training to teachers for some years, a practice that will continue and be reinforced.
In this new beginning, the sexual education course in high schools and technical schools will be conducted as workshops, with a duration of eight to ten hours per year, split into four to five hours per session. In discussions with the Ministry of Education and the Inspector of Secondary Education for Home Economics, Christiana Filippou Charimou, it was explained that the allocated teaching time is sufficient to cover the material. The workshops will be interactive, meaning that instead of sitting at desks, students might gather in circles, engage in group activities or games, and even have debates on specific topics related to the course.
According to Ms. Philippou, the key educational methods highlighted through these workshops are active student participation and the enhancement of their ability to take action. The ultimate objective upon completing the program is for students to adopt healthy behaviors and lifestyles, while building responsibility, self-esteem, and communication skills. Essentially, the workshops offer students the chance to explore and analyze both risks and protective factors related to the subject at hand. Additionally, they encourage students to take responsibility and cultivate attitudes, including: a) positive values like inclusion, respect, self-esteem, zero tolerance for violence and bullying, and b) essential skills such as negotiation, communication, asserting oneself positively, self-care, conflict resolution, and emotional expression and management.
In Europe, sex education has been part of the curriculum for over fifty years. Data gathered by "K" from the Cyprus Family Planning Association shows that Sweden initiated this teaching in 1955, followed by many other Western European nations during the 1970s and 1980s. The inclusion of sex education in schools continued in the 1990s and early 2000s, starting in countries like France and the United Kingdom, and later expanding to Portugal, Spain, Estonia, Ukraine, and Armenia.
In 2003, Ireland introduced sex education as a mandatory subject in both primary and secondary education. It's important to note that the focus of sex education has evolved to align with changing educational and public health priorities, though the core components have remained consistent. Initially, the emphasis was on preventing unintended pregnancies (1960s and 1970s), then it shifted to HIV prevention (1980s) and raising awareness about sexual abuse (1990s). As of the early 2000s, it also addresses protection against sexism, homophobia, and cyberbullying. Nowadays, the analysis of gender roles and their impact on gender inequality is a significant aspect of sexual education.
Since 2011, when the course was integrated into the Health Education curriculum, there haven't been any major issues, as indicated by Mrs. Papadopoulou. On the contrary, positive outcomes have emerged, such as an increase in children reporting instances of abuse to their teachers after receiving the instruction. "In recent years, school-based reports rank as the second-highest source of such disclosures, with parents being the first," she stated.
Meanwhile, research across several European nations has demonstrated that implementing comprehensive national sexual education programs, when delivered in a safe and supportive environment coupled with access to health services, yields enduring positive effects on the health and well-being of young individuals. Specifically, drawing from data provided by the Cyprus Family Planning Association to "K," sexual education has contributed to lower rates of teenage pregnancies and abortions, reduced sexually transmitted infections among individuals aged 15 to 24, decreased HIV infections in the 15 to 24 age group, a decline in sexual abuse, and lessened homophobia.
Additionally, the experiences of certain countries offer concrete evidence of favorable shifts in behavior that have coincided with the introduction of sexual education. Between 2005 and 2010, the percentage of sexually active fifteen-year-olds remained stable in Western European countries, while it increased in Eastern European countries. Nonetheless, in at least four countries (Finland, Germany, Kazakhstan, and the Netherlands), the proportion of sexually experienced fifteen-year-olds decreased.
Furthermore, over the past thirty years, there has been a noticeable rise in the utilization of birth control methods during initial sexual encounters in Germany. In 2010, 92% of young individuals utilized some form of contraception during their first sexual experience, a substantial increase from the 80% of girls and 71% of boys who did so in 1980. Similarly, in the Netherlands, nearly all teenagers, about nine out of ten, used contraceptive methods during their initial sexual activity.
In Finland, the introduction of sex education in schools and sexual and reproductive health services for young people in 1990 resulted in an immediate drop in teenage pregnancy rates. However, due to financial constraints, both programs underwent significant cutbacks from 1998 to 2006. This directly affected abortion and birth rates among girls aged 15 to 19. Rates began to decline again following the reinstatement of sex education and health services for young people in 2006.
In Estonia, the notable reduction in sexually transmitted infections among those aged 15 to 24 is attributed to increased awareness about contraception and condoms, better access to youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services, and a supportive policy environment.