Baroness Liz Sugg CBE is a Conservative peer and Ritah Anindo Obonyo is a member SheDecides Kenya.
When Boris Johnson co-hosts the Global Partnership for Education summit this week, we want him to talk about sex.
Why? Because comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) is absolutely vital to realising the UK’s commitment to ensuring 12 years of quality education for young people everywhere.
The Global Partnership for Education provides a vital opportunity for Boris Johnson and other world-leaders to commit funding to transforming education systems in the world’s poorest countries. That transformation must have CSE at its heart.
For girls in particular, access to comprehensive sexuality education gives them the tools and knowledge they need to understand their rights and to make decisions about their own bodies. Whether in Kent or Kenya, it helps to prevent gender-based violence and sexual exploitation. In fact, it is key to women’s and girls’ economic empowerment later on in life.
The benefits of CSE cannot be ignored. Girls who don’t receive sex education are more likely to drop out of school due to early marriage and pregnancy. In sub-Saharan Africa, four million girls leave school before finishing due to early pregnancy.
In contrast, when we provide CSE and information on reproductive choices, we can help girls stay in school. We know that girls who complete secondary education are five times more likely to be educated on HIV/AIDS, keeping them safer and giving them the tools they need to make decisions about their bodies.
Growing up in the Korogocho Slum in Kenya, I, Ritah Anindo Obonyo had no sex education. My two friends and I used to talk about what was happening to our bodies – both friends then dropped out of school as a result of early pregnancy.
Without sex education, young people access information from unreliable sources. They have poor reproductive health outcomes. They are more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS – in Sub-Saharan Africa six out of seven new HIV infections occur in young women aged 15-24. All of these issues have a profound effect on women’s life chances and equality and have been exacerbated by Covid-19.
We know that women’s economic and social equality is impossible to achieve when women don’t have ownership of their own bodies. Sex education is therefore key to sustainable development.
For many years now, the UK Government championed our belief that CSE is crucial to girls’ empowerment. The UK taxpayer should be proud that, via the international aid budget, we have collectively helped empower vulnerable women and girls around the world.
But when I, Baroness Sugg, resigned as Minister for Sustainable Development and Special Envoy on Girls’ Education last year, I did so because the progress we have made on supporting women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health faced a grave threat with a budget cut that broke both the Conservative Party manifesto promise and international commitments.
Two weeks before the launch of the Global Partnership for Education Summit the UK Parliament approved the fiscal circumstances needed before we return to spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income on international development.. This will unequivocally damage the rights of girls and risks rolling back decades of progress.
The cuts will force the closure of sexual and reproductive health services in some of the world’s poorest countries. It will lead to more women and girls being forced to access unsafe abortion. It risks more women dying in childbirth.
Simon Cooke, the Director of MSI Reproductive Choices and also a SheDecides Champion, has warned the cuts will “do more damage … than the global gag rule” – a US policy that denied federal funding to NGOs that offered abortion services or advice that resulted in 20,000 unnecessary maternal deaths and 1.8 million unsafe abortions between 2017 and 2000.
What will the UK Government’s record be?
The cut to international aid will end life-changing and life-saving programmes that deliver information and advice on sexual and reproductive health. We are deeply concerned about the long-term impact a lack of education about sex, respect, consent and bodies will have on girls in the Global South, particularly as they deal with the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Of course, we cannot change the past. But we can look to the future. As ministers prepare for this week’s Global Education summit, we ask them: are we going to leave women and girls behind as the world builds back better from Covid-19? Or are we ready to ensure girls’ rights are protected by investing in CSE?
The Chancellor has promised to work with parliamentarians to ensure the UK’s overseas development aid budget is spent in a way that has maximum impact. We know that ensuring every child has access to CSE will have a huge impact in the years and decades to come. It will create healthier and more equal communities. It will boost women’s economic empowerment. It will reduce maternal deaths, unsafe abortions, and rates of child marriage.
This week’s summit provides the UK with an important opportunity to raise its hand and recommit to quality education. We need to hear from the Prime Minister that he commits to funding education systems to include CSE, for every child in the world, no matter where they live.
So, Prime Minister, are you ready to talk about sex?