The Ontario government's recent changes to the sex-ed curriculum have revived a values-based debate around sexuality in our province. As the conversation continues to be framed within an ideological tug-of-war, it is the rights of children that are being overshadowed, as they so often are.
The recent announcement that the curriculum will apparently still teach consent, gender, same-sex relationships and cyber-safety is a positive step in the right direction. However, a child's right to a comprehensive sexuality education must be seen as a necessity, not an option or add-on feature. September is just around the corner, and Ontario's children deserve a clearly defined and carefully developed curriculum.
This means providing children with age-appropriate, culturally relevant lessons about sexuality that are realistic, scientifically accurate and non-judgmental.
Comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) is not an Ontario-born concept, nor is it a Liberal-born concept. This is a perception that ignores a much larger emerging national and global consensus. CSE is widely recognized by global bodies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), as essential to support the fulfillment of children's rights. The 2015 Ontario sex-ed curriculum was simply catching us up to the sex-ed curricula already being delivered in most other provinces.
Over the last 20 years our world has changed dramatically. Advances and transformations on nearly all fronts — social, political, technological, economic — have altered the way we carry out our daily lives. The children of today must be equipped with information that gives them the necessary tools to navigate through this changing world safely, and with confidence.
When it comes to sexual education, this means providing children with age-appropriate, culturally relevant lessons about sexuality that are realistic, scientifically accurate and non-judgmental — something the 1998 curriculum fails to do. The 2015 curriculum includes important issues that speak to the real needs of adolescents in 2018, including gender equality, consent and digital communication.
A 1998 curriculum that predates the #MeToo movement and LGBTQ rights ignores the fact that children and youth are not only more vulnerable to sexual assault and harassment, exploitation and abuse, but vulnerable in new and ever-evolving ways. According to a 2016 report, nearly one in five internet users aged 15 to 29 reported having been cyberbullied or cyberstalked.
Just as children need to learn about math, history and how the world works, they also need to learn about how their bodies work.
A 2015 Statistics Canada study found the majority (55 per cent) of victims of police-reported sexual offences were between the ages of zero and 17. The numbers are even more grim for women, with approximately one woman killed by an intimate partner every six days.
Girls and boys need to be aware of their sexual rights to protect themselves and make informed, healthy and respectful choices for themselves, within relationships and throughout their lives. Just as children need to learn about math, history and how the world works, they also need to learn about how their bodies work, how to form healthy relationships, and that no means no.
At Plan International Canada, we work with young people in places like Nigeria, Bangladesh and Haiti to deliver a rights-based approach to sexual education, covering topics such as self-esteem, consent, gender norms, sexuality, sexual and reproductive health, sexual and gender-based violence, contraception, and STIs. As a gender equality advisor, I know this kind of comprehensive education advances gender equality and adolescent health in the communities we work in, especially for girls. If we don't have the same kind of quality education here at home, we could see strides in gender equality and health outcomes rolled back.
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But most importantly, we'll be ignoring the right of every child to the information she, he or they need to make informed and healthy sexual decisions, protect themselves from harm, and build relationships free from discrimination and violence.
Simply put, it is a matter of human rights.
Jennifer Donville is a Senior Adviser of Gender Equality for Plan International Canada
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