UN sex-ed guide draws flak

Conservative groups say the programme would be too explicit for young children

Roberto Ruiz, who has HIV, discussed the virus last year with Filipino students in Manila.

The guidelines, scheduled to be released by UNESCO in a new draft next week, would be distributed to education ministries, school systems and teachers around the world to help guide teachers in what to teach young people about their bodies, sex, relationships and sexually transmitted diseases. They would address four different age groups.
“In the absence of a vaccine for AIDS, education is the only vaccine we have,” said Mark Richmond, UNESCO’s global coordinator for HIV and AIDS and the director of the division that coordinates educational priorities. “Only 40 per cent of young people aged 15 to 24 have accurate knowledge” of how the disease is transmitted, he said.
But the conservative criticism has already caused one of the key participating and donor agencies, the UN Population Fund, to pull back from the project and ask that its name be edited out of the published material, UN officials said.

A Population Fund official, reached in New York, said on Tuesday that the fund wanted changes to the text. “Discussions are ongoing to make the publication more effective and adaptable by countries, so it may better serve countries as guidelines for use in national educational systems,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A draft issued in June has been attacked by conservative and religious groups, mainly in the US, for recommending discussions of homosexuality, describing sexual abstinence as “only one of a range of choices available to young people” to prevent disease and unwanted pregnancy, and suggesting a discussion of masturbation with children as young as 5.

“If you ever have a situation where kids need to be taught earlier than their adolescence, this is not the way to do it,” said Colin Mason of the Population Research Institute, an anti-abortion organisation based in Virginia.
“It’s very graphic and encourages practices like masturbation, which conservative Christians and others feel are wrong.”

The diversity of views around the world on these issues renders any universal approach “culturally insensitive,” Mason said. “We think it’s a kind of one-size-fits-all approach that’s damaging to cultures, religions and to children,” he said.
UNESCO has removed the June draft of the guidelines from its Web site, and delayed the release of the final document. “Unfortunately, the way the guidelines have been presented by certain media has provoked some fairly aggressive reactions, mainly in the form of virulent comment on conservative American Web sites, but also via some very nasty e-mails directed at the two co-authors as well as certain UNESCO staff,” said Sue Williams, spokeswoman for the agency, which is based in Paris.

A team of experts at UNESCO has been working on the guidelines for two years, drawing on more than 80 studies of sex education, at a cost of about $350,000. The project is intended to help countries improve sex education and sexual health, reduce HIV and AIDS and other STDs, as well as illegal abortions. The guidelines suggest, for example, that teachers begin discussing masturbation with children ages 5 to 8, with a more extensive discussion for those ages 9 to 12.
UNESCO has responded to the onslaught of criticism by issuing a news release about the guidelines before their release, defending them as “evidence-informed and rights-based.”

The final document was scheduled to be released in Birmingham, England, on Monday. Now the agency says that it will present a new draft then, and that it hopes to produce the final guidelines by the end of the year.

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