Parliamentarians prioritize comprehensive sexuality education

Political will is key to achieving health for all, including sexual and reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health, affirmed the World Health Organization (WHO) at the recent 146th Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) in Manama, Bahrain.

“We know nearly all maternal deaths are preventable, but every two minutes a woman dies during pregnancy or childbirth. We know sexual and reproductive health and rights are central to every person’s health and well-being, but 270 million women have an unmet need for contraception. We know universal health coverage is essential for healthier populations, but almost 2 billion people face catastrophic or impoverishing health spending,” said Dr Gaudenz Silberschmidt, Director of Health and Multilateral Partnerships (HMP) at WHO, in a statement to the IPU Assembly..

IPU is a key partner for WHO in mobilizing parliamentary engagement to advance health for all.

The SRH Workshop on Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE), co-organized by IPU, WHO and the UN Special Research Programme HRP at the 146th Assembly, was a powerful example of political will in action.

Preparing young people for a safe, healthy, fulfilling life

During the 90-minute workshop, parliamentarians from 12 countries spoke about the need for CSE and adapting successful strategies for promoting, protecting and enhancing CSE in their respective countries.

They shared challenges, including community concerns and reticence, and more recently active misinformation. Common themes emerged, as parliamentarians expressed strong support for the journey ahead to improve the quality and expanding the reach of CSE – including in countries which have had active CSE programmes for many years.

“Comprehensive Sexuality Education is rooted in the right to health,” said Dr Pascale Allotey, Director of the WHO Department of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Research (SRH) which includes HRP. “Parliamentarians have a fundamental role to play in navigating the legal, cultural and financial barriers that can stand in the way of ensuring children and adolescents get the information and education they need to grow and develop in good health.”

As Dr Venkatraman Chandra-Mouli, Scientist in the SRH Department and HRP highlighted in his technical presentation:

  • The term “CSE” does not matter – language should be adapted in order to provide age-appropriate, scientifically-accurate and culturally-relevant information.
  • There is convincing evidence that well-designed and well-delivered CSE programmes contribute to good sexual and reproductive health and do not cause harm.
  • It is critical to reach children and adolescents where they are, both in and out of school.

No universal health coverage without sexual and reproductive health and rights 

There is growing consensus between scientists, government, parliament and civil society about the value of CSE as part of every person’s right to a broader package of sexual and reproductive health services and information.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights are fundamental to the achievement of universal health coverage (UHC) – a priority for WHO and IPU’s longstanding collaboration.

However, evidence shows that SRH services are often excluded from countries’ health benefit packages.

At a side event for the launch of the WHO-IPU Handbook on UHC, Dr Veloshnee Govender, Scientist in the SRH Department and HRP spoke about the crucial importance of paying attention to both what and who is being left behind – even in well-functioning health systems that have made considerable progress towards UHC.

“People’s participation in governance and accountability for UHC is critical,” she explained. An inclusive approach takes more time – but that’s how you build trust, sustainability and health systems with a seat for everyone at the table.”

WHO has a number of tools to support integration of SRHR in UHC plans, including Critical Considerations, the SRH-UHC Learning by Sharing Portalin-school and out of school technical guidance on evidence-informed approaches to CSE.

Gender inequalities affect everyone’s health

Despite progress made on several aspects of women’s health and rights, gender inequality persists.

Gender power relations and gender norms affect women’s and men’s exposure and vulnerability to certain health risks in different ways, but evidence shows that women and girls are disproportionately affected throughout their lives.

“The slow progress [on women’s health and rights] is an outcome of lack of political will and action, insufficient funding, restrictive laws and policies, harmful gender norms and health systems constraints, including insufficient integration of comprehensive sexual, reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health in national health benefit packages and primary health care,” said Dr Govender, in WHO’s statement at the 35th Session of the IPU Forum of Women Parliamentarians.

“Universal health coverage with comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights must be considered essential services, and IPU will continue working on these issues with a focus on addressing discriminatory legislation and improving access to health for marginalized populations,” said Mr Martin Chungong, IPU Secretary General, speaking about the need to promote CSE in the context of sexual and reproductive justice and the High-Level Commission on the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25 follow up.

“The IPU-WHO workshop on comprehensive sexuality education shows that there is an important interest in this discussion. MPs talked about the need to educate not just young people, but everyone who is engaged in this process.”

Learn more about WHO’s work with parliamentarians at the 146th Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union:

Learn more about WHO’s tools to support integration of SRHR in UHC plans, including Critical Considerations, the SRH-UHC Learning by Sharing Portalin-school and out of school technical guidance on evidence-informed approaches to CSE.