Have you ever wondered how Dominica manages Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE)? In my attempt to determine or understand the current realities of CSE implementation and its impact on Dominica’s youth, I first tried a basic online search. Unfortunately, this wasn’t very helpful. Among the top five hits returned, only one had content that was directly about Dominica, but it didn’t actually give me any useful information. It led to a Facebook post of a link to a survey platform being used to gather information about young people’s experience of CSE. The other hits were focused on the region, and while the UNFPA A Formative Assessment of CSE Within the Health and Family Life Education Curriculum in the Caribbean report touched briefly on Dominica, it offered no real information to the outsider wanting to understand the local landscape. For the most part CSE in Dominica seems like an enigma.
CSE should be grounded in rights, and is sensitive to gender norms, for both in- and out-of-school youth. It is structured according to a curriculum with the goal of helping children and young people gain knowledge and develop skills, attitudes and values that allow them to have a positive view about themselves, and their sexuality. It also aids them with the development and understanding of their emotional and social needs, which is very important to the overall development and wellbeing of a nation’s youth. Also, CSE provides the opportunity to introduce (age-appropriate) learning about Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR). This means building a greater awareness and sensitivity among youth in supporting informed decisions about their bodies and well-being. Additionally, it facilitates conversations about issues related to Gender-based violence (GBV) and the linkages to SRHR. This could help to reduce risk and prevalence. Ultimately, comprehensive sexuality education can be used as a tool to help achieve gender equality with its approach to knowledge and skills building.
You see, CSE can even be a line of defence against GBV. ‘Forewarned, fore armed’ as they say. But you might be asking, how does it benefit the children, and youth of Dominica? They learn, understand, and develop skills relative to sex and sexuality and within their specific age context. This will allow them to grow into adults that know how to navigate relationships and practice healthy communication, make informed choices about their sexuality and sexual health, and be safe and protected with a positive attitude about identity and intimacy. Basically, they are empowered to enjoy (appropriate to their age of course) their sexuality, take responsibility for their own sexual and reproductive health and rights, and respect those of others. Now, we may understand or have a general idea what young people actually need from the CSE programmes. But with such little information, it is difficult to determine the realities on the ground in Dominica and how the needs of young people are actually being met through the CSE as it is currently offered.
What is apparent is that Dominica does have some legal framework that requires the provision of CSE in primary and secondary schools. But CSE isn’t being taught as an independent subject in schools. It is included in the Health and Family Life (HFLE) curriculum. HFLE is offered in the schools at levels K and Grades 1 through to 6. And similar to cases elsewhere within the region and internationally, where CSE is offered as part of another programme, some topics such as puberty are given less priority than others. There may be focus on menstrual hygiene without consideration for the emotional and social changes associated with puberty. For instance, HIV and AIDS is only talked about with regards to sympathy for victims but what exactly is HIV/ AIDS and how does it affect the body? What are the kinds of stigmas and how do they relate to sympathy? The answers to these questions are often lacking from the discourse. Similarly, conversations about sexual abuse cover “good touch/ bad touch”, and what to do when they are victims of abuse but does not include messaging for young people who could be perpetrators. . What about adolescent sexuality? As children mature into teenagers, their needs change, and the implementation of the programme should cater to that. If neglected in SexEd, youth are placed at higher risk for early sexual debut, unintended pregnancies, and STIs, among other less desirable consequences.
Content aside, how CSE is taught within the HFLE programme does not create a safe, open, comfortable space for young people to ask questions, explore, and discover their gender and sexual identity. If done right, it could help prevent adolescents from engaging in unhealthy, unsafe practices. Current teaching methods marginalise young people who are victims of HIV, identify as LGBTQ+ and those who simply not ascribe to the idea of marriage (in a heterosexual relationship), raising biological children. The goal is to protect all children and young people from bullying, depression, transmission of STIs, adolescent/ teen pregnancy, increased risk of dropping out of school, GBV and ultimately situations that can end in serious harm. In a nutshell the information that children and young people receive from CSE is important.
If we look at these two graphs, below, generated by the Sexuality Education Review and Assessment Tool (SERAT), we see how much content is sufficiently, and age-appropriately covered in Dominica compared with international standards.
As clearly indicated, all of the key concepts are largely absent from existing curricula for children between the ages of 5 and 12. Even in cases where it is present or marginally so, it is difficult to determine specific demographics and the impact of said content. For example, there is no (current) data for adolescent/ teen pregnancies, and STI transmittance or the average age young people have their first sexual encounter. This is important data that can help determine the issues, the type of content and interventions the CSE curriculum should deliver. Limited data also affect comprehensive solutions and the ability for advocates to hold leaders accountable.
Of course, the absence of nuanced data from these internationally validated data sources does not tell the full story. Buf if not, then where is the data? Who has access to it? And how is it being used? Perhaps, this offers an opportunity to start the work of gathering relevant data to support effective CSE in Dominica.
It seems too great a risk to leave young people unaware, unguided, unprepared, and unprotected, when it comes to sex and sexuality. To be young and uninformed is to be vulnerable and this is the unfortunate result of not having adequate information. It is said that “prevention is better than cure” and CSE seems like a valid place to start in meeting the needs of the young people of Dominica.