Wednesday

1st Feb 2023

Opinion

EU needs comprehensive 'sexuality education'

  • The patriarchal power structures on which European societies are built are challenged when young women see themselves as men's equals in sex and relationships (Photo: European Commission)

Could education contribute to creating a world free from gender-based violence? At UK-based think-tank GenPol, we believe so.

In the wake of the global #MeToo movement our policy paper shows that comprehensive sexuality education is a vastly underused resource across EU member states to tackle gender-based violence.

Gendered violence in Europe

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Violence against women is prevalent in the EU.

One in three (33 percent) European women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15, nearly half (43 percent) have been subject to some form of psychological violence by a current or former partner, and one in twenty (5 percent) has been raped at least once.

Factors such as race, disability, and sexual orientation often compound gender-based violence.

The potential of sexuality education

Comprehensive sexuality education is crucial to addressing such endemic violence, as it challenges the societal and attitudinal foundations upon which gendered violence is built.

It combats pervasive misinformation on sex and sexuality, and helps teenagers to develop positive attitudes and values with respect to themselves, their bodies, and each other.

The patriarchal power structures on which European societies are built are challenged when young women see themselves as men's equals in sex and relationships.

Similarly, educational programmes that are LGBT+ inclusive and sensitive to matters of race and disability have been shown to reduce hate crimes and discrimination.

If young people are not encouraged to challenge gendered stereotypes about family life, sex roles, and sexuality, then inequality, harassment and even violence become less easily recognisable as wrong.

Classroom-based education that covers these psychosocial components prevents young people from receiving a wholly warped or absent narrative on sex and relationships.

The ideal sexuality education, however, is far from the norm across the EU.

The subject is mandatory by law in some form in nearly all EU countries, but it is mostly reproduction- and biology-centred, covering topics such as unwanted pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infections (STIs). The important psychosocial elements mentioned above are largely absent.

A European approach

Given the subject's potential to tackle the violence that women across the EU face, we need to adopt a European approach to sexuality education.

The time is ripe for such a move, in the wake of #MeToo and in light of the growing commitment to the creation of a European Education Area.

Sexuality education falls under the remit of the EU's key educational competencies: it is necessary for every citizen's health, safety, development, and inclusion.

Additionally there is a pressing need to speak to young people about their rights and responsibilities online; 20 percent of European women have experienced cyber harassment, phenomena such as revenge porn pose a serious risk to young women's dignity and safety, and sexually violent online content is easily accessible.

Investing in a common educational framework, resources, and training would be an investment in women's wellbeing.

Adopting a European approach to sexuality education would present an ambitious and progressive agenda on the use of learning to safeguard women's fundamental rights in the Union.

Eradicating violence against women through education should be part of the 'future of Europe' that is being so heavily debated at the moment.

European investment in research

To get to this stage, greater investment in research is needed.

Currently, there is no common effort to research the link between sexuality education and gender-based violence at European level.

Further, there is little comprehensive, longitudinal data on rates of violence against women at both national and European level.

A lack of empirical research on which to build advocacy efforts stalls progress and thus an active shift towards data-gathering and research-informed educational exchange is required.

Data challenges are compounded by the fact that countries with little gender-sensitive education are often those where fewer crimes against women are reported, because survivors cannot speak up or do not necessarily recognise harmful behaviours as wrong.

Much more research is needed in order to truly understand the complexities of violence against women and thus design effective preventative educational programmes.

European and national funding opportunities should be created both to support research on this topic and to facilitate collaboration between different European stake-holders.

The #MeToo movement made clear that European women are standing up to sexual harassment, assault, and violence.

Comprehensive sexuality education is an important tool though which this can be challenged, and Europe's increasing appetite for combatting violence and for European-wide education means now is the time to adopt a common approach to the topic.

Committing to research, investing in education, and championing women will propel Europe towards a future where women no longer have to say 'me too'.

Nathalie Greenfield is a research associate at GenPol: Gender and Policy Insights, a think tank consultancy and social enterprise advocating for gender equality, and works at the European Parliament

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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