Sex education, once a subject rendered to youngsters snickering in corners of schoolyards, has come a long way since the 1950s, when it consisted of straight-faced explanations about the functions of the reproductive organs. In recognition of sexual health as a quintessential part of public health, sex education is today a mandatory element of primary and secondary school curricula in Denmark, and the scope has widened from the singular focus on the matters of biology to encompass the complexities of sexual well-being, respect, tolerance, and equity.
The Program of Action that resulted from the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo gave sex education a global momentum. It states that “reproductive health … implies that people are able to have a satisfying and safe sex life and that they have the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when and how often to do so.”
This historic international consensus gave rise to the global agenda for sexual and reproductive health and rights, and moved family planning from being a means of population control into the sphere of individual rights and well-being. The agreement forged the right of the individual to use – or not to use – contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancy, as well as the right to access information and services to prevent unwanted childlessness.
In light of the fact that 225 million women globally have an unmet need for family planning, however, most of the attention has remained on providing citizens with the knowledge and means to avoid unwanted pregnancies, and it cannot be stressed enough that this is a very real and urgent issue.
The Danish Family Planning Association (the Danish chapter of the International Planned Parenthood Federation) has worked consistently to support the strengthening of sexual and reproductive health both in Denmark and internationally. In Denmark, the organization leads a national yearly campaign providing sex education material to 44 percent of all Danish school children.
As in many other countries, the sex education curriculum has been oriented toward providing school children with the knowledge and capacity to develop healthy reproductive and sexual lives, including avoiding sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies.
At the same time, one out of 10 children in Denmark is born as a result of medically assisted reproduction, and epidemiological research suggests that approximately 25 percent of couples who wish to have a baby spend more than 12 months trying to get pregnant.
The Danish Family Planning Association takes a rights-based approach to sexual and reproductive health, and these statistics prompted us to reflect on our sex education material. Avoiding unwanted pregnancies will always be a central part of sex education, but keeping the 1994 Cairo conference in mind, we found that we had neglected to pay sufficient attention to unwanted childlessness and the ability to reproduce.
It has taken us perhaps too long to address the area of infertility. This has partly been out of a concern that it would be harnessed to drive an economic and socio-demographic agenda with little regard for human rights, as has been the case in the past for many family planning programs. As such, we find ourselves stepping into a new field, but we are still firmly grounded in a rights-based approach.
Josephine Obel is board member at the Danish Family Planning Association.