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Comprehensive Sexuality Education: From Confrontations to Conversations

By Marielle le Mat, Maryse Kok and Tasneem Kakal

Comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) has been increasingly advocated for to improve the sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people and the communities they live in.

This emphasis has been accompanied by growing dissent and opposition by several groups in national and international spaces who claim that CSE is inappropriate and can harm the moral fabrics of society. KIT Royal Tropical Institute studied the increased polemics that are taking place around CSE in three countries where opposition is on the rise: Ethiopia, Kenya and Zambia. In Ethiopia and Kenya, some national ministries are opposing the idea of adopting a nation-wide CSE curriculum, while in Zambia, opposition comes from particular (religious) community-based organisations.

Key findings

KIT has summarized the key findings of the study in an overview that present the actors involved and their rationales in either opposing, promoting, or navigating middle ground in CSE debates. While the country contexts are quite different and the opposition to CSE seemingly differs in nature, there are some stark similarities.

(See the visual below for a summary of our findings)

In all three countries, the promotion of CSE is highly associated with the United Nations (UN) and UN narratives are equated to being Western. This association is reflected in funding streams from UN and European nations to national non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that work on implementing CSE, as well as in the discourses used to oppose CSE: opposition warns against Western agendas eroding the countries’ cultural identities. Ironically, funding to opposing actors often originates from US- and Europe-based right-wing and Christian organisations, who fund African sister organisations to actively strategise to minimize community and political support for CSE.

The role of religion

Often, religious leaders are the face of the opposition and have large credibility in these contexts where culture and religion intertwine and many people endorse institutionalized religion. In such a context, proponents’ arguments around the evidence-based nature of CSE, its benefits to youth empowerment and reduction of health problems can easily be seen as secondary to maintaining cultural and religious identities. 

Despite these contradictions in priorities and arguments used between the opposing and promoting actors, there is a large middle ground. Overall, almost all actors agree that something must be done to reduce the sexual and reproductive health (SRH) issues that are prevalent among young people in all three countries, and most agree that education about these issues in some form is a key strategy to do this. In order to advance the SRH status of young people, it is crucial to find and expand this middle ground by engaging in dialogue with a wide range of actors. Using value-based language and linking sexuality education to national key SRH priorities can be useful strategies to move the conversation forward.