Sexuality and education: We fail at the start and the impacts last a lifetime

Sex, education and children. An explosive mix, one almost guaranteed to catch the attention of conservative commentators the world over. But it’s an area that doesn’t get the air time in deserves in development organisations. Instead of shying away from the topic we need to do more talking if we want to create a more economically just and gender equitable world.

When most people think of the links between sexuality and education they focus on the ways in which girls get taught to stay healthy: minimise the risk of violence, avoid HIV and other sexually transmitted illnesses, and delay pregnancy until a time that suits them. There’s a general consensus that few countries (regardless of Gross Domestic Product) get young people’s sex education right, either in-school or out of it. But beyond sex education there are a number of other ways that sexuality interacts with education.

Sexuality-education linkages

The push to reach the Millennium Development Goal targets on education mean that many more children actually attend school for some of their childhood. Attention is now turning to how to make this a quality experience that equips them for work and learning throughout life.

School is one of the places where we get taught what it means to be a girl or a boy, a man or a woman. Gendered learning is inherent in the way that curricula are ordered and taught and the types of student behaviour that are punished or rewarded, both informally and in educational policy. Much of the time this is unexamined. Yet it can have serious implications for learners who fail to conform to norms around gender and sexuality.

An obvious manifestation of this is through homophobia. Studies on homophobia in schools in South Africa demonstrate that it is pervasive and systematic, leading to verbal and physical attacks from staff and students. Gender non-conforming students and trans people are discriminated against in a similar fashion all over the world. For these children school is not a nurturing place of safety. It is the place that ingrains upon them their subordinate place in the social hierarchy. For many young people this can severely impact on their ability to benefit from an education and its fruits.

Beyond homophobia and transphobia, there are other ways in which these negative gender and sexuality norms assert themselves. A study of the relationship between gender socialisation and sexual coercion and violence in Ghana, Malawi and Zimbabwe has concluded that students were socialised to accept a high degree of gender-based violence (including sexual violence), reinforced by school disciplinary structures and staff.

Some countries punish girls who break norms around sexuality and get pregnant before marriage by excluding them from school altogether. In India parents withdraw girls from education because they fear that they might form romantic relationships on the journey to and from school. In some parts of Sierra Leone young girls who agree to shave their heads have their school fees paid for by the government. This is so that they, supposedly, don’t attract men, have sex, and get pregnant before leaving school.

Failing to benefit from education has lasting impacts

Anne Lim is the Director of GALANG, in the Philippines, an organisation that works with lesbians, bisexual women and trans men (LBT) in poor urban areas. At a recent meeting GALANG organised that focused on the links between sexuality and poverty she explained,

“LBT youth are being bullied by their own teachers in public schools but choose to endure the mistreatment day in and day out because their families cannot afford to send them to private schools. For those who don’t make it through school there is work in the informal economy, where there are really no social protection policies. Even when they do get a job their same sex partners cannot be named on insurance policies and the like which means that their families suffer in ways that policy makers cannot imagine.”

Studies of travestis in Brazil have shown that as many as 44.9 per cent did not finish elementary school, and that 79.2 per cent left their parental home before the age of 18 due to their gender identity and sexual orientation. The occupational possibilities for these young people are severely limited and the state fails to protect them from sickening levels of transphobic violence that renders them even more vulnerable.

What to do?

Children have a right to education free from discrimination, bullying and violence on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Whilst we might know this in our hearts it is often hard for people to talk about sexuality. For most people it is a very private topic and not one they integrate into their working lives. Few people have the vocabulary or the tools to talk about the relationships between sexuality and public policy (beyond the health sector). But as development practitioners we need to do better.

To try and shine a light on how sexuality intersects with poverty reduction policies the Institute of Development Studies sponsored a set of policy audits in different settings which addressed social protection, housing, education and disability. This project offers some learning on how we can move this work forward.

Their work suggests that there needs to be more research that highlights the ways in which people marginalised because of their sexuality are excluded from the benefits of development. That movements for social justice, such as feminist movements, need to engage in more dialogue with sexuality-focussed organisations.

Challenging policies which reinforce harmful gender and sexuality norms cannot be the sole responsibility of small and poorly-funded LGBT organisations who are sometimes fighting for their very survival. It’s time for all development actors to interrogate the hidden assumptions that guide their policy priorities if they are serious about reducing inequality and improving possibilities for all our children.

Blog by Kate Hawkins, Managing Director of Pamoja Communications


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