School's out for Egypt's sex education
The Egyptian government's decision to remove sex education from the curriculum is a worrying backward step
Mohamed El Dahshan for The Guardian
In a surprising move, the Egyptian government has decided to scrap all content in the secondary school curriculum relating to sex education, reproductive health and sexually transmitted diseases.
Biology students in the 16-17 age range will no longer study anything pertaining to reproductive health. Students aged 13-14 will see their science book lightened by a few pages with the removal of those containing drawings of male and female genitalia, as well as the entire lesson on sexually transmitted diseases. And the science book for 12-13-year-olds will skip the description of testicles and ovaries in its lesson on glands.
Instead, according to the education ministry, there will be "activities in which the teacher will lead a class discussion on the subject" – a suggestion that is difficult to take seriously. Reproductive health – or anything remotely related to sex, really – is usually met in Egyptian classrooms with giggles. Underqualified science teachers, unable to handle a sensitive topic, and vexed by students' laughter, will probably not make the effort.
For relationship and dating expert Marwa Rakha, this is an accident waiting to happen. "There wasn't much to teach in the old days to begin with – just basic reproductive knowledge – and teachers were too shy to teach it. Now, we're just heading to disaster," she told me.
"The coming generation will be lacking basic knowledge in sex, STDs, birth control, hygiene – all thanks to the minister of education." Add to that the unofficial pressure from an increasingly religiously conservative society – on the surface at least – and you realise that the only way forward is back.
Is there any chance that Egyptian students will get some formal sex education further down the schooling road? Apparently, none. Medical students I have spoken to have told me that even the country's leading medical school at Cairo University does not teach sex education. Ain Shams University medical school students have a "sexology" class – the "anatomical and biological aspects of sex ed, not the social and psychological ones," one explained.
This situation seems all too familiar in the Middle East. "While Iran and Tunisia have taken pioneering steps in reaching out to young people to address their needs, the region as a whole lacks the political commitment and institutional capacity to do so," states a report by the Population Reference Bureau, a US-based international NGO. Only Iran, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Bahrain include a reproductive health module in their national school curricula.
In Saudi Arabia, a recent study found that there is a severe need for sex education in the country – and that 80% of parents surveyed approved of it. But an Emirati bestselling book on sex education, which has already earned the approval of the Mufti of Dubai, was banned in Saudi Arabia and its author, Wedad Lootah, has received death threats from conservatives who accuse her of blasphemy.
In Syria, the United Nations Population Fund feels compelled to reassure people on its website that sex education does not actually encourage sexual activity. As for Lebanon, often viewed as the most liberal country in the Middle East, it had decided in 1997 to teach reproductive health to the 12-14 age group, only to have a presidential decree scrap those chapters from the school curriculum three years later.
So what other options are there? Families are a weak source of information on the subject. "We're dealing with several generations passing down their own discomfort with sex," says psychologist Abeer El Barbary.
An official study reported that only 7% of adolescents had learned about sex from their fathers (while 42% of fathers said they discussed the matter with their kids); a 2006 survey by the Pan Arab Project for Family Health reported that, in Algeria, 95% of male respondents and 73% of female respondents had learned about puberty on their own, without professional or family assistance.
Television is potentially a useful source of information. With the airwaves awash with shows featuring clerics of various levels of religious knowledge and taking live telephone questions from the audience, sex and relationship questions have become a staple of the discussions – though unfortunately it is religious clerics and not sexologists who are dispensing advice.
One cable television show, presented by sexologist Dr Heba Kotb, represents the first groundbreaking effort on Arab television to respond to such queries ranging from the simplest to the more complex. A Syrian radio show – Today's Discussion – has reportedly begun to address questions of sex education.
But Rakha is sceptical, pointing out at an important shortcoming of such programmes: "The media often mixes everything with religion," she tells me. "All these programmes preach abstinence and fidelity – now while those are indeed very worthy values, there must be an option for people who do not abide by them." A lot of the queries she receives, primarily via her website, "concern premarital sex" – another important area that the mainstream educational media fails to cover. The picture overall looks bleak. The international basic ABC programme – advocating Abstinence, Being Faithful, and using Condoms – finds its effectiveness curtailed when it stops at the first or second letter.
With local campaigns across the region planned to mark World Aids Day on 1 December, it is important to recall that, despite having some of the lowest incidence rates in the world, HIV/Aids is rapidly on the rise, with a 300% increase between 2004 and 2007, compared with 20% globally. This is a terrifying statistic whose only silver lining might be to remind that prevention is better than treatment – and that prevention starts with proper and accurate knowledge. If we want to address this, sex education in schools is the unavoidable first step.