Rachel Robinson, American University – How to Ensure Access to Sexuality Education for Teenagers

On American University Week: How do we ensure students get sexual education?

Rachel Robinson, associate professor at the school of international service at American University, explores how two different communities did just that.

Dr. Robinson is a sociologist and demographer whose research focuses on global health interventions in sub-Saharan Africa, including family planning, HIV/AIDS, and sexuality education. Her book, Intimate Interventions: Preventing Pregnancy and Preventing HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa (Cambridge University Press 2017), investigates the relationship between family planning and HIV/AIDS interventions across the continent with a focus on Senegal, Nigeria, and Malawi. Journals that have published her research include Demography, Journal of the International AIDS Society, Population Studies, and Population Research and Policy Review. She has conducted field research in Namibia, Malawi, Nigeria, and Senegal, and current projects relate to politicized homophobia in sub-Saharan Africa and the extent of social science knowledge on NGOs. Her research has been funded by the MacArthur Foundation, the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, and the National Science Foundation. Dr. Robinson teaches courses on statistics, global health, NGOs, population studies, and development.

How to Ensure Access to Sexuality Education for Teenagers

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Parents, educators, and policymakers the world over worry that teaching teenagers about contraception will make them more likely to begin having sex earlier than they might otherwise. Spoiler alert – it doesn’t– not in the United States, and not in Africa.  But those fears of triggering precocious sexual behavior are difficult to dispel – despite the proven value of sexuality education in improving the health of adolescents. Given these fears, it is surprising that Mississippi and Nigeria have come to require schools to offer sex education.   

Why compare a mid-sized state with the so-called “Giant of Africa”? Until recently, only half of states in the United States mandated sexuality education while Nigeria, like many other low-income countries, lacked such programs entirely. Mississippi is among the U.S. states with the highest teen pregnancy rates, while in Nigeria, almost a quarter of women have begun childbearing by age 19.  Mississippi and Nigeria are also highly religious and rural, with underfunded education and health systems. Thus, it was somewhat surprising when Nigeria mandated the teaching of sex ed in 2001, and Mississippi followed suit a decade later.

The research my colleagues and I conducted looked at the elements that helped to overcome controversies around sex education in the two areas.  First, homegrown organizations lobbied, linked people together, and provided legitimacy to ideas that otherwise might have seemed foreign. Crucially, these organizations were supported by outside funding.  Second, to promote sex ed, these organizations and the people working for them described it as a solution to social problems – the taxpayer cost of teen pregnancy in Mississippi, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Nigeria. Third, they also used context-specific strategies, including highlighting parts of the curriculum that focused on overall health rather than sex.

While there is no universal pathway to ensuring access to sex ed, our research shows that the commonalities between Mississippi and Nigeria’s experiences can be applied in other U.S. states and developing countries.  

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