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TIRANA, Albania — “As a teacher, but more so as a parent, I would like my child to know as much as possible about sexuality education,” says Oriana Osmani, an educator in Albania. “But our society has a major handicap: we call sex a taboo and do not speak openly about it.”

Learning about sexuality in an age-appropriate manner is an integral part of growing up. Unfortunately, though, not every parent or teacher shares Osmani’s views. As a result of taboos around the topic and misinformation about its purpose, too few schools in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region include comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) in their curricula — leaving young people at risk.

“School sexuality education is generally more accepted and implemented in Western Europe than in Eastern Europe or Central Asia. Partly because of this, indicators of adolescent sexual and reproductive health are generally also much more favourable in Western Europe,” says Dr. Evert Ketting, an international specialist in sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Started from an early age, comprehensive sexuality education has been shown to help young people avoid unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, and potentially abusive situations, while learning how to develop safe, healthy, equal and satisfying relationships with others.

And things are starting to change in Eastern Europe. Dr. Ketting cites Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Estonia as “very promising examples” of integrating sexuality education in school curricula.

Photo: Y-Peer Albania

What’s changed in the region

This week, Albania is hosting a three-day regional workshop, “Championing Comprehensive Sexuality Education – Albania and Beyond.” Held from 16–18 October, the workshop brings together high-level policymakers, experts, civil society organizations, CSE activists and young people to discuss what’s changed on sexuality education in the region since the landmark Programme of Action was adopted at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994. Participating governments, civil society organizations and young people will also share and reconfirm commitments to strengthening integration of comprehensive sexuality education into the school curriculum and out-of-school sexuality education in the context of the 25th anniversary of ICPD, culminating in the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25 to be held in November.

Health and sexuality education started to become part of the Albanian educational system in 1995, and great strides have been made since then despite challenges in ensuring sustainable funding, reaching marginalized groups and overcoming resistance from conservative segments of society.

UNFPA has been working with the Ministry of Education, Sport and Youth and other partners in Albania for nearly a decade to institutionalize age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education as part of the curriculum for 10- to 18-year-olds in Albanian schools. This nationwide initiative includes both developing the package of teaching materials and training teachers on sexuality education, with some 3,000 instructors trained thus far on best practices in teaching the topic.

“This programme for comprehensive sexuality education in schools is very important as we try to raise healthy, happy and safe children — an objective that cannot be met without accurate information,” says Dhurata Vata, a primary-school teacher in the Tirana suburbs.

“We must be open in talking with children in order to enable them to make correct and appropriate choices about the information they receive, not only from teachers and parents, but also from their peers,” adds Vata. “Of course there is some difficulty in doing this, as it used to be a strong taboo subject, but things are changing now.”

Though some parents have been reluctant to embrace the concept of comprehensive sexuality education, Mirela Bega, a high-school biology teacher in Tirana, says her students are eager to learn more about their sexual and reproductive health and rights. She utilizes a “question box” where students can anonymously submit their questions for discussion in the classroom. “This allows students to speak openly, clearly and free of shyness, to ask questions without being made fun of by their classmates,” Bega explains. As a result of the lessons, she says, the students are “more sincere and open with their boyfriends and girlfriends; it has helped them establish real relationships based on friendship.”

Photo: Y-Peer Albania

Training and empowering peer educators

UNFPA’s partnerships with the government and non-government institutions and organizations also include training and empowering peer educators like Andi Rabiaj, who travels around the country talking to other young people in and out of school about sexual and reproductive health, including human rights and gender-based violence.

“Some young people react shyly at first; there can be some hesitance at the beginning, or even a kind of scepticism, like ‘I know these things already,’” he says. “But after talking with us, they see that the information they may have gotten from the media or the internet is not always complete or correct.”

Comprehensive sexuality education is also an important tool in combatting child marriage, especially in marginalized communities where the practice is more common, says Zamira Gjini, the general director of policies at the Ministry of Education, Sport and Youth. “It is the duty of the school to engage vulnerable girls, as well as to raise awareness and work with parents, psycho-social services and the local government to ensure that these girls stay in education and avoid child marriages,” Gjini says.

Albania has already made significant progress in adopting regulations supportive of comprehensive sexuality education, training large numbers of teachers in the subject, and getting teachers, young people and heath professionals involved in the planning and implementation process. A thorough curriculum reform, including a monitoring system to ensure the quality of teaching and materials, is underway with a target date of 2020 for full implementation.

Work to change attitudes at the individual level continues as well.

“Teachers should consider comprehensive sexuality education as an important subject to be taught like other subject matters, free of shyness,” says high-school teacher Bega. “I want students to see that this is not something to be ashamed of but something very important for them to know. Equally, I would tell parents to allow and encourage their children to learn about this because it prepares them to be successful and better cope with challenges in life.”