Despite a proposal by four prominent House of Commons Committees and various professional organisations, the Minister of Education announced on February 11, 2016 that age-appropriate sex and relationship education, including discussion of healthy relationships and cyber-safety, would not be part of the education curriculum. The proposal’s defeat means continuation of the status quo: sex education is only taught in schools from the age of 11 onwards and parents have the right to exempt their children from participating. The government’s decision has been criticized by the National Aids Trust, Sex Education Forum and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. It has been reported that the government’s decision ignored the entreaties of several senior women in Cabinet.
Absent from this discourse has been the connection between sex education and human rights. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education calls for a human rights based approach (HRBA) to sex education. A HRBA opens up a new language and framework in which the right-holder can claim a positive obligation on the state to provide sex education, as well providing insight into the structure and content of sex education.
Although the UK’s domestic and international human rights commitments make no specific reference to a right to sex education, a strong inter-woven commitment to the delivery of comprehensive, human rights-based sex education can be seen to emerge from the rights to life, health, security of the person, education and gender equality. Not all of these rights have been recognized in the UK, therefore this analysis is confined to examining how a commitment to gender equality requires the state to provide sex education.
Cultural norms praise male promiscuity while female sexuality is restrictive, passive, shameful and degrading. Girls feel stigmatised in expressing their sexuality and in using sexual and reproductive health services. They often feel they do not have the power to insist on using contraception, leaving girls at risk of unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. Girls are often held responsible for any unintended consequences of sexual activity and for the caring of children. Sex education can be a powerful tool to dismantle these negative cultural norms and transform gender relations.
There has been a rise in young girls sharing sexually explicitly images and videos of themselves. Young girls report feeling pressure to produce and send sexually explicitly images of themselves to other people. These images can quickly be shared among a large number of people. This has pronounced implications for the mental health, and even lives, of young girls and women. The law has been very slow to respond to these harms, making awareness of the risks of this behaviour and cyber-safety a crucial component to ensure women’s equality.
Sex education should also form part of a holistic and transformative strategy on gender-based violence (GBV), one of the most pernicious forms of discrimination against women. One of the root causes of GBV is unequal gender power relations. Sex education can emphasis girls’ and women’s rights to bodily integrity and autonomy, teach laws on sexual consent and encourage young people to critically reflect on gender relations. Sex education that adopts a rights-based approach is an important preventive, empowering and transformative measure in a larger strategy to end gender-based violence.
A rights-based approach also raises challenging issues on balancing the parent and child’s rights to religious freedom and belief against gender equality and the other human rights fulfilled by sex education. Case law from the European Court of Human Rights holds that it is within the state’s margin of appreciation to deny faith-based exemptions to compulsory sex education compulsory so as to ensure autonomous decision making skills and the safety of the child. There is analogous case law denying faith-based schools exemptions to the ban of corporal punishment from the UK and South Africa, in which courts have reasoned that the dignity, security and equality of the child were paramount to religious freedom and belief. Similar arguments can be made to address moral or faith-based exemption to sex education.
It is unfortunate that the latest proposal to make sex education mandatory was not implemented by the UK government. The current policy remains under review. Hopefully a push to conceptualising sex education as a positive obligation necessary to fulfil human rights will strengthen the arguments for compulsory sex education throughout all schools in the UK.
This ideas are explored further in M Campbell, ‘The Challenge of Girls’ Right to Education: Let’s Talk About Human-Rights Based Sex Education’ (2016) 20(8) International Journal of Human Rights 1219