This 137-page report shares findings of a regional curriculum scan, which was conducted in 2011, to assess the content, quality, and delivery methods of sexuality education (SE) curricula in ten East and Southern Africa (ESA) countries. The review was conducted to help countries to develop curricula designed to not only increase comprehensive knowledge among young people, but to empower them to adopt protective behaviours, such as refusing unwanted sex, delaying sex, using condoms, and testing for HIV. It was jointly commissioned by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) for the HIV Prevention Working Group of the Regional AIDS Team in East and Southern Africa (RATESA), and forms part of an inter-agency programme aimed at supporting countries in ESA region to improve the quality of gender-sensitive, life skills-based sexual and reproductive health education. The ten countries included are Botswana, Kenya Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
In addition to offering a general overview of findings and recommendations across the 10 countries, the appendices of the report contain ten country-specific reports, which consist of a brief literature review summarisng findings from published studies relevant to the topic, followed by a fairly detailed narrative report on the curricula of each country. The report also offers lessons learned for future curriculum scanning activities.
According to the report, while it is difficult to characterise curricula across 10 countries in any all-encompassing manner, the following broad observations about curriculum content, and in particular the gaps and weaknesses that could be addressed, were noted:
- The content was generally age-appropriate. The most common exception was delayed delivery of information about puberty.
- Most curricula addressed communication skills with reasonable effectiveness. Significant time was generally allotted to this topic and/or it was infused across other topics, with emphasis on role-plays. Some of the curricula taught refusal skills effectively, while others emphasised avoiding situations thought to be risky. In some, there was an emphasis on ‘politeness’ that to a certain degree undermined content on assertiveness.
- Most curricula did not contain enough basic information about male/female condoms and contraception (including emergency contraception). Although knowledge about these topics is a key risk/protective factor for sexual behaviour and health outcomes, many of these curricula were, to differing degrees, essentially focused on abstinence-only, rather than devoting resources and classroom time towards approaches that are more effective and contain accurate and complete information.
- Other key aspects of sex and sexual health were lacking, including information about reproduction, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), abortion, and where to access condoms and sexual health services.Most curricula also addressed the experience of puberty strictly as a biological process without acknowledging the changed social environment (for example increased harassment, parental monitoring, etc.) that can also generate considerable confusion and difficult feelings for pubescent girls. The topic of male circumcision was also missing from most curricula, although this topic is complex and needs to be addressed carefully.
- Most curricula included at least some information on gender, however, these sections were not always adequate and were sometimes contradictory, for example, some messages challenged gender inequality while others reinforced it. Gender-based violence and intimate partner violence were overlooked in many curricula and similarly, gender norms were misleadingly labelled 'peer norms'. Moreover, few curricula gave serious attention to the influence of media on gender norms. As a driving risk/protective factor for HIV and other sexual health outcomes, curricula should address gender systematically.
- The treatment of human rights varied but mostly did not include sexual rights, for example, almost none of the curricula addressed sexual diversity in an appropriate way. Moreover, while virtually all curricula mentioned sexual abuse, these lessons tended to be aimed solely at girls, suggesting that females bear full responsibility for preventing abuse. Most curricula did not include any mention of teachers' reporting requirements for sexual abuse either.
- References to sexuality tended to be negative and fear-based. By breaking down fear related to sexual relationships, it is easier to help learners understand the particular risks of multiple concurrent partnerships and of having intergenerational sex and to develop sexual decision-making skills; similarly, a moralistic approach obscures the power dynamics that are the real threat to young people's sexual health and rights. Finally, almost none of the curricula addressed the difficult but important area of HIV disclosure.
- Most curricula did not pay enough attention to empowering young people, building agency, or teaching advocacy skills.
- The issue of school safety was not adequately addressed in most curricula, which is a particular concern given the ongoing vulnerability of many girls to abuse by boys, teachers and other trusted adults in the learning environment. Most of the curricula did not explicitly link to other initiatives with shared aims either.
In addition to reviewing the content of curricula, the document also outlines some general observations regarding the teaching of sexuality education, which show that generally there is a lack of guidelines on teaching approaches, as well as limited guidance on class activities for teachers in most countries, e.g. around preparation, duration of activity, and evaluation.
Based on the above findings from the curriculum scan, the following are some of the recommendations for strengthening comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) and school-based HIV prevention:
- Remedying missing, incorrect, or inappropriately presented content - From a technical perspective and in cases where religious or ideological factors are not an overwhelming obstacle to strengthening curricula, all of the curriculum gaps and challenges can be remedied in a fairly straightforward way. To guide modifications or supplementation of content, the country narrative reports provide references to specific sections in It’s All One Curriculum, Volume 1 (Guidelines), and to International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education (ITGSE) Volume II. Where content is not age-appropriate, reports reference ITGSE. Country teams should refer to these sources and request additional copies as needed for relevant policy-makers and other resource people in their countries.
- Building syllabi or frameworks into full curricula with detailed content and teaching activities - Country teams should refer to It’s All One Curriculum, Volume 1 to develop more detailed content. For developing activities, refer to It’s All One Curriculum, Volume 2 (Activities). In addition, country teams can borrow effective activities from each other's curricula, if these are made available. The Joint Inter-Agency Team may also wish to facilitate sharing of effective teaching activities among countries. The parallels between some curricula suggest that some sharing already takes place, however, because even the most exemplary curricula also contain some problematic elements, it is advised that individual activities be extracted and compiled into a separate resource document.
- Raising the bar for capacity-building and support for CSE - Lessons from evaluation research suggest that most of the curricula reviewed lack the minimum "package" of content and approach that can hope to achieve meaningful results. Notably, curricula that teach abstinence-only have no proven benefit for HIV prevention – but educating sexually active young people about condoms and contraception (and providing guidance for negotiating safe sexual relationships) may decrease their risk. The Joint Inter-Agency Team should establish a minimum bar (if this does not already exist) for partners to qualify for support in the area of curriculum and teacher-training in CSE and HIV prevention. The minimum content package should be based on agreed core components of CSE as described in the International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education.
- Ensuring attention to safe schools and the wider learning environment - A safe learning environment, free from bullying, discrimination, harassment, and violence, is essential for effective learning in any subject, but particularly for CSE. Country teams should incorporate lessons on safe schools. These lessons should ensure that curricula engage young people in analysing situations involving all range of bullying and abuse, including homophobic bullying and stigmatisation of HIV-positive students and those with a disability. They should also address the extremely heightened HIV risk that accompanies intergenerational sex and the absolute wrongness of any sexual advances by adults in the school environment. Country teams should, where needed, become stakeholders for zero-tolerance policies to ensure that such lessons translate into reality. Such policies must include training for staff, reporting protocols, and dismissal of adults found to violate the policy.
In conclusion, the report makes the point that one needs to keep in mind that a good curriculum does not guarantee what is actually taught. The overall learning culture is often an overlooked factor for concentrating or diluting a curriculum. For example, studies from the World Values Survey indicate that an open and respectful classroom culture more effectively promotes gender equality (and belief in democracy) than curriculum content itself. The report also notes that these curricula are aimed at learners in school settings, and will not reach children who are marginalised and out of school, girls in particular. "Efforts to reach the most vulnerable girls require not only targeted outreach, but curricula that address the profound inequality in their lives, provide social supports and solidarity, and are integrated with empowerment initiatives such as literacy education and savings account schemes."
UNESCO website on March 27 2014.
Image credit: Photoshare/Amelia Shaw.