Building peace in the minds of men and women

It is time to face the facts: Young people in China ask more from comprehensive sexuality education

26 September 2019

The Chinese government has just launched its new ‘Healthy China Initiatives (2019-2030)’, which has new elements relevant to comprehensive sexuality education. To mark the occasion, UNESCO hosted a policy dialogue on 21 August in Beijing inviting UN, health, education, civil society and government representatives with the media to discuss the new GEM report and UNESCO policy paper, ‘Facing the facts: the case for comprehensive sexuality education’.

The topic is one that resonates in the country. “The sexuality education that I received in middle school was limited to some basic knowledge about reproductive system covered in biology class and a brief girls-only class-meeting about menstruation,” Ms Guo Yueping, a 21-year-old university student and active member of China Youth Network told the group.  “I remember two students who experienced unintended pregnancy were expelled from school,” she added.

Only half of students in 30 secondary schools across six provinces and municipalities in China agreed that ‘girls should have a say as to who and when to marry’ and only half disagreed that ‘a woman cannot refuse to have sex with her husband’.

Likewise, the Youth Network in China and the China Family Planning Association conducted a study in 2015 showing that only 10% of the nearly 20,000 university students from over 130 universities surveyed had received any sexuality education in primary school. Several other studies also showed young students’ lack of understanding about gender, violence, contraception and early and unintended pregnancy, as well as low levels of knowledge about HIV, especially among rural students.

The China Family Planning Association is helping address this gap by promoting peer education among young people. “In the beginning we called it adolescent health programme to avoid unnecessary opposition, but it is essentially sexuality education encompassing physiological, psychological, ethical and legal aspects. Now it has become one of the top ten branded government programmes that serve the grassroots”, stated Ms Hong Ping, Commissioner of China Family Planning Association (CFPA).

However, it’s about more than just sex, Josephine Sauvarin, the youth adviser of UNFPA, told the group. “A lack of understanding about gender equality, consent and rights leads to gender-based discrimination and violence, as well as early and unintended pregnancy, unsafe abortions, HIV and sexually transmitted infections, etc..”

As the policy paper highlighted, despite an increasing body of evidence on the positive impact of the subject, its implementation is hindered by social opposition due to misconceptions that it may be at odds with culture, and operational barriers such as insufficient support to teachers and lack of appropriate curricula and resources.

“The slow progress in its implementation is due to both social perception and methodologies. Sexuality education is not just about sexual behaviour but contains a broad range of topics”. said Senior Professor Gu Mingyuan, member of National Education Consultative Committee.

Shenzhen is known as one of the few cities in the country for providing school-based sexuality education. Yet, even there, Ms Zhang Ling, Deputy Head of Moral, Physical, Health and Arts Education of Shenzhen Education Bureau explained that “since 2008, due to the reform of compulsory education, most schools abolished their health education classes. Now probably only probably ten percent of schools are still maintaining that practice. Schools cannot afford class hours for this topic any more, even though there are teachers who are self-motivated to do it”.

Effective change requires listening actively to parents’ concerns.

According to Guo Yueping, like many young people of her age, in her teenage years she would rather go to her peers and would have liked to go to her parents about these topics but did not because of the difficulty in breaking the taboo.

Hong Ping cited a survey by CFPA in 2014 showing 80% of parents felt unable to talk to kids about sexual and reproductive health. They run a programme aimed at increasing parents’ knowledge and boosting their confidence and skills in communicating with their children about sexuality, gender and reproductive health. “Now this program is being implemented in almost all provinces. It is so popular that in some places, parents have to wait in que for a training slot to be available”, said Hong.

The new GEM Report and UNESCO policy paper has six recommendations:

  1. Commit to strong political leadership
  2. Invest in teacher education and support
  3. Make curriculum relevant and evidence-based
  4. Develop monitoring and evaluation mechanisms
  5. Work with other sectors to bring about real change
  6. Engage with community and parent organizations