A quarter of a century ago, a landmark conference recognised reproductive rights and women’s equality as central to sustainable development. But many girls worldwide still face a struggle to access information about sexual and reproductive health, with far-reaching consequences.
To mark International Day of the Girl on Friday, we’ve asked teenage girls around the world about their experience of sex education. How did they learn about sex and how did this shape their view of relationships? Can they access contraceptives? Are they able to resist pressure to have sex?
Access to information on reproductive health, particularly for adolescents, is under the spotlight.
Next month a summit in Nairobi will mark the 25th anniversary of the international conference on population and development (ICPD), held in Cairo. The summit aims to breathe new life into the 1994 programme of action, which pledged to empower women and girls by making family planning and access to other reproductive healthcare a central part of development policy.
The ICPD programme was seen as a turning point, but many of its pledges remain unfulfilled, and many adolescent girls are being left behind. According to UN Women, each year 12 million girls under 18 are married, 130 million girls are still out of school, and approximately 15 million adolescent girls aged 15-19 have experienced forced sex.
Gomathy, 14, from Chennai, India
At first [sex education] was taught to us in school by some college students. But then I got a much better understanding of it at [the NGO] Karunalaya, after attending the sexual health sessions there.
When I started learning about sexual health at my school, at first I felt it wasn’t necessary for us to know. The teacher who led the class was a man and it was uncomfortable. But now I have different views about it. Sexual health [education] is mandatory to us and I should become more knowledgeable about it.
When my friends share their dating stories with me, I feel that I want to be in a relationship myself, but I also know that sometimes there are misunderstandings and clashes between them [and the people they are dating]. I also feel that education is important for us at this age and I should not be led astray from my path. I should make my family proud by finishing my education and getting a job with a good company.
In eighth grade, some children have been able to access condoms and when I’ve asked them where they got them, they told me that older boys had bought them and given them to them – and that they are easily available from illegal drug suppliers in the community.
I do have a crush on a boy, and whenever I see him crossing the road I smile at him. One day I wanted to talk with him, but something stopped me when I thought about my father, and I turned back. I feel that my parents are important for me while these relationships are not permanent at my age. I am able to control my emotions.
Hiury Santana Cuevas, 17, from La Romana, Dominican Republic
I was first told about the topic [sex education] at home, mainly by my mother, and also in some talks at the school when an institution called Mami came to teach us about it. The talk made an impression on me because I hadn’t [known] much about the topic at all. Yes, there were some boys at school who laughed during the talks but I also learned a bit more because of them, because they talked about their own experiences.
I feel a little scared and also excited about future relationships, because it’s going to be a strange thing to have so much trust with that person.
I don’t have access to contraceptives right now, and I have no plans to have sex right now. So far I have not experienced any pressure to have sex since I don’t have a partner.
When the time comes, if I didn’t feel comfortable or ready, I would talk to my partner about my feelings and, if I saw that he was very insistent, I would leave that relationship – because I’d know that in the future it would be a toxic relationship.
Akreeti Chetia, 14, from Uttar Pradesh, India
My dream boyfriend would be someone who is loyal to me. [He] also needs to be smart, handsome and tall. I am all for cheesy stuff as I read romantic novels. Boys have asked me out in the past but I haven’t found “the one” yet. I don’t care if there is a defined “appropriate” age to date, you can’t control someone’s feelings – if two people like each other, they should definitely date. My school is in Noida, Uttar Pradesh and teachers tell us that it is not acceptable to date in school. Honestly, their statement itself is not acceptable.
I reckon I will meet the right guy in high school. I don’t like online dating and I definitely won’t be signing up when I turn 18; I have read about how people get catfished.
I am not on Facebook, albeit mom allowed me to use Instagram on my 14th birthday as a present. My parents are very open to discussing sex and relationships, but not every parent in India is like that. All of my friends are scared to talk to their parents.
In school we don’t get any sex education. Maybe there is some for 12th graders, but it should start from sixth grade because that is when we experience hormonal changes. They teach us to be global citizens, but how can we be if the school can’t provide basic sex education? Teachers flinch at the word “rape” when we ask them. Most girls search about sex on the internet – that isn’t the right way to get information. It is important to educate boys about consent; they might react aggressively if a girl says no.
I have seen advertisements about condoms but I don’t know what a pill looks like or much about it. Girls my age are under a lot of peer pressure to date, they go out with boys they don’t even fancy. I wish my school was more representative and covered all these topics in depth.
Sharon Ndambani, 14, from Kuwadzana, Zimbabwe
My sister took care of me since I was young, I could only see my mother during holidays. She taught me how to do house chores and advised me on how to behave at school. She encouraged me not to play with boys and always be careful around them.
It’s important to learn such lessons because they will make me a better person in the future. I do not want to be an embarrassment to my family. That is why I follow what my sister taught me. Going to school has also taught me important life skills like hard work. We do agriculture practicals, woodwork, and fashion and fabrics, which help me with life skills.
Our guarding and counselling teachers [at school] have been helping, teaching us about the changes that happen in our bodies, [how] to say no when a man makes unpleasant advances, and hygiene. This has helped us to become responsible girls.
It is not right for parents to choose a man for their child. I would not get married to a boy that my parents chose for me because I should be given an opportunity when I’m older to choose for myself. Why would they choose for me? Maybe it is because of money, but it will only create problems for me in the future.
I should get married to someone I love. I think I will have a good marriage because my sister and her husband set a good example for me.
Larisa Nascimiento, 16, from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
My parents talked about [sex education] for the first time when I was seven years old. I don’t really feel comfortable talking about sex even though it is a perfectly normal topic, because I think it is something very personal, very intimate.
At school boys are always making comments and jokes, and [playing] stupid games. It is easy for us to get hold of condoms and contraceptives. I feel confident about the choices I make about my body. But it’s still too early to talk about future relationships. Sex isn’t my priority – playing football and going to school are. Sex is just something that you do to satisfy physical desires.
Indhu, 15, from Chennai, India
My friends told me about it [sex] from their relationships with their boyfriends. When I was studying [in grade] eight there was a chapter about adolescence and reproductive health in science [class]. My teacher taught about sexual health in my classroom. I learned about “good touch” and “bad touch” when I attended a sexual health session by Karunalaya.
When our headmistress taught about this in school I felt: “Is that relevant to me to learn about this now? Why she is teaching this stuff to me?” I had lots of doubts, but I was not able to ask questions.
I too wanted to get in [a] relationship with a guy, but when I think about my family, I don’t want be in relationship. I stopped myself getting into it. I know about [the] problems [of] early pregnancy. I don’t have [the] ability to rear a child. I have also seen many [girls] in my area who have raised a child at a young age and they’re missing their childhood now.
Contraceptives are easy [to] access now, but not from the pharmacy. They are gotten from some older boys from the community.