'Why is it challenging for AFAWI to promote Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) in Ghana?' - by Isla Leckie, 28.02.2023
AFAWI strives to promote gender equality through various channels and projects. One branch of AFAWI’s mission is the Empowering Girls Project which focuses on younger generations sexual and reproductive health (SRH) through comprehensive sexual education workshops and improving access to menstruation products in schools in the Greater Accra Region and beyond. However, the topic of sex education is controversial and subject to a heated debate in policy and socio-cultural characteristics of Ghanaian society. In September 2019, the Ghanaian Education Service published a guideline for integrating CSE, which is defined by UNESCO (2009) as ‘an age-appropriate, culturally relevant approach to teaching about sex and relationships by providing scientifically accurate, realistic, non-judgmental information’ (UNESCO: 2009: 69), into the pre-tertiary education curriculum from age 6 to 18 years.
Yet, this policy received strong criticism from communities and religious leaders, especially from the Catholic Bishops Conference, Christian Council and Islamic Community. So much so that President assured that the novel CSE policy would be immediately withdrawn. However, this proposal ignited intense debates between social conservatism who opposed CSE, and liberal progressivism who are accepting of CSE.
Presently, Ghana has adopted a social conservatism outlook on sex education which tends to assert that explicit sexual discourse amongst children and adolescents is inappropriate. This approach embraces a ‘mono view’ of human sexuality, that are usually placed within religious theologies that prioritise abstinence as the only effective and meaningful way of stopping the negative consequences of sexual activities (i.e. pregnancy & STI’s). Additionally, sex education is taught in terms of sexual and reproductive physiology and is exclusively heteronormative. Hence, social conservatism imposes a fear-based narrative as those who do not conform to this conservative, almost obligatory views of sexuality are sanctioned and considered morally perverted (Amo-Aajei, 2021:5). Some social conservatism researchers (Rasmussen, 2012; Roodsaz, 2018) argue that the topics of CSE, promoted by international organisations, namely UNESCO, are too Westernised and unfit for the ‘Global South’. A view that is also shared by some communities and religious leaders in Ghana who believe CSE will expose children to ‘western’ sexual norms and orientations. These expositions will supposedly ‘adulterate’ Ghanaian sexual norms and encourage LGTBQ sexual expressions, which is another very controversial topic in Ghana.
Other scholars agree to an extent that CSE is culturally insensitive in the Global South as it promotes universal neutrality and values based on Western models (Roodsaz, 2018). For example, Rasmussen (2012) questions the exclusion of religion, kinship networks, culture, and spirituality in CSE’s teachings, which may be an integral aspect of the lives of young people in these contexts. Whilst others worry it will disrupt community values of innocence of children (Amo-Adejei, 2021: 2) and that it will encourage promiscuity among youth. Consequently, social conservatism argues that CSE places too much responsibility on young people to navigate the sociocultural contexts in which they live (Amo-Aajei, 2021:5).
However, empirical research in Ghana would suggest that the current model for educating sexual discourses is ineffective as it is estimated that around 43% of females and 27% of males aged 15-19 are reportedly sexually active, yet there is low reportings of the use of contraceptives (Awusabo-Asare et al, 2017). This is evident in the 14% of school-going girls who become pregnant annually, which means they may not be able to return to school. Data available further reveals that only 18% of female and 25% of male adolescents hold a comprehensive understanding of the causes of HIV. Furthermore, young women are subject to gender-based violence: a fifth of female students reported being forced to have sex in their lifetime (Amo-Adjei,2021; Ohene et al, 2015).
So how can these statistics be explained?
Many would argue that this is a result of social determinants for example in popular culture in Ghana particularly Afrobeat’s, sex is very frequently the subject of songs along with largely sexualised music videos. Afrobeat’s is a huge part of Ghanaian culture and is played consistently, meaning topics surrounding sex (often questionable ones i.e. the sexual objectification of women) are available to anyone, including children. However, this is somewhat ironic that then sex education teaches abstinence… so young people are on the one hand exposed to very sexual lyrics but then in school, an institutional setting where fundamental teachings of sex could be nationally taught, young people are taught that sex only leads to bad consequences so you shouldn’t partake in it.
Though, scholars believe that also the lack of access to CSE has resulted in the above statistics. Thus, there is a need to respond to this situation with a more holistic approach and understanding of safer sex and sexuality education using CSE (Singh et al, 2021). This is exceptionally important due to Ghana’s large youth population: 57% of the population is 25 years old and younger.
CSE takes a liberal progressive position on sex education which aims to empower youths to a better understanding of sexuality and relationships to improve their sexual health and quality of life. A crucial feature of CSE is that it strives for a rights-based approach to inform young people of their human right to knowledge in an equitable and non-discriminatory manner. The ‘progressive’ notion holds adolescents and young people as legitimate sexual beings (Cameron-Lewis & Allen, 2013), teaching a balanced view of sex and sexuality as both enjoyable with discoursed of desire and pleasure, and with its risks (Fine, 1988; Amo-Aajei, 2021:5). This improves young people's decision-making skills, competencies, and respectful sexual practices and behaviours (UNESCO,2018), giving them more sexual responsibility and autonomy. These factors have been proven to mitigate negative SRH outcomes, including delaying sexual activity, higher use of contraceptives and safe sex which in turn reduce pregnancies, unsafe abortions, STI and HIV (Amo-Adjei,2021; UNESCO, 2018). Additionally, it has also been proven that CSE shapes gender norms and has the potential to minimise coercive and violent sexual practices and behaviours (Amo-Adjei,2021). Therefore, it is particularly beneficial to women’s equality by educating them about their sexual and reproductive agency.
AFAWI supports CSE and seeks to improve current narratives towards sex and sexuality which is denying young people crucial knowledge. Additionally, AFAWI wants to empower young women by giving them more agency which can be achieved through CSE. As evident, socio-cultural barriers strongly limit the scope of topics AFAWI can provide. However, at AFAWI we are hopeful for what the future will hold in terms of sex education and for now we try to provide as much support as we are able to.