Many sexologues call for sexual education as a means of preventing sexual violence against children. Certain studies support this recommendation, including Research and Action for Women’s Health, a study published in January 2019 by the Groupe Tawhida Ben Cheikh.

The study included interviews with a total of 1062 youth between the ages of 15-24 from neighborhoods Ettadhamen, Douar Hicher, Rades, Ennasser and El Menzah. Results show that 63% of boys and 21% of girls confirmed having had sexual relations. Of these, 64% indicated carrying out risky sexual behavior. The study revealed flagrant ignorance about sexual and reproductive rights, including methods of contraception and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and HIV. According to the National Office of Families and the Population (ONFP), 20 thousand cases of STDs were recorded during the first trimester of 2019. ONFP Assistant Director of Medical Services and Field Activities Fatma Temimi says that the number of abortions rose from 13 thousand in 2013 to 17 thousand in 2018.

Ministry of Education tests the waters

Called upon by associations and political figures, Tunisia’s Ministry of Education announced the introduction of « sexual health education » beginning January 2020 in 13 pilot governorates. « The selection of these governorates is not arbitrary; the goal is better representation of different categories of Tunisia’s population », a source in charge of the project at the Ministry explained to Nawaat. Training for national education inspectors is already underway, with educators soon to participate. A prudent Ministry of Education is testing the waters: « We don’t want to force educators, it’s only for those who want to cooperate », our source tells us before adding, « Some educators are aware of the challenges surrounding the issue and are working with students to prevent sexual violence ».

That the project is called « sexual health education » as opposed to « sexual education » is also not arbitrary. Faced with conservative resistance in the name of religion and social traditions, the Ministry of Education hopes to make the courses more palatable to critics. Our source at the ministry insists that the « greatest challenge is to raise awareness about sexual violence affecting children » and that « the content will not go against our religion and traditions ». The courses will be integrated into academic curriculum « through classes that lend themselves to such a topic: civic education, Islamic education, sciences ». « The information will be conveyed through ludic, not explicit, methods, according to age ». Interrogated about the possibility of covering LGBT and contraception in the courses, our interlocutor responds that « any question that may be ambiguous or risks triggering parents’ concerns will be excluded ».

The courses will begin for children ages 5 to 8 years old, raising awareness about their privacy and the need to preserve it. For children ages eight to 12 and then 12 to 15, the focus will be puberty and the bodily changes that entail. « While the vision for the program is clear for children, it is still being elaborated for other age groups. A team composed of scientists and civil society actors such as the Arab Institute of Human Rights, UN Women and the Tunisian Association of Health and Reproduction is participating. We hope that everything will be ready for the start of the next school year », our source tells us.

An important step forward

Child psychiatrist at the hospital Mongi Slim and former president of the Tunisian Association of Democrat Women (ATFD), Ahlem Belhaj numbers among those who have advocated for sexual education courses at educational institutions. « The Ministry of Education is prudent faced with resistance but its initiative is commendable. We need to first tackle the subject, and hopefully afterwards refine its content with the introduction of topics like LGBT and unplanned pregnancies which are still taboo in our society », says Dr. Belhaj.

The psychiatrist points out short- and long-term damages caused by the absence of sexual education: « At ten years old a child has already been exposed to pornography on the internet. In addition, adolescents learn on their own through biased images of sexuality. As for parents, they don’t talk about it, and if they do they use vocabulary dictated by the duality of Halel/Haram. This portrays sexuality in a negative light and is the source of problems such as vaginismus or premature ejaculation » laments Beljah.

Sexual education must be adapted to children’s age, she says. As early as 2 to 3 years old, children begin to discover their bodies. « We have to focus our efforts on fun ways of learning. Sexuality is above all a way of being, encompassing one’s relationship to oneself and to another. A relationship that must be based on notions such as equality, sharing and consent. For instance, we mustn’t force children to kiss strangers. This risks making them victims incapable of perceiving assault. Mistreating a child is also at odds with respect for his physical integrity », she warns.

For Ahlem Belhaj, the introduction of sexual education in school establishments is « an important step », but a change in mentalities is not only the responsibility of the Ministry of Education. The task must also be carried out by parents, the media and doctors.

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