Recently, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) took a major decision in favour of young peoples' right to sexuality education at school on the grounds that this provides them with the skills to protect themselves from sexual violence. This was in response to a case brought forward by a Swiss woman who wanted her child to be exempted from a class where she could ask questions about sexuality and reproductive health.
In Switzerland, teachers are encouraged by law to answer questions related to sexuality and reproductive health in kindergarten and primary school. In the case in question, the highest Swiss court decided that it was in the best interest of the child to have access to information that could protect her health. The ECHR came to the same conclusion.
The ECHR ruling is a clear recognition of the role that sexuality education plays in the global education of children, in the fight against sexual abuses and in the protection of public health. The Court highlighted that society has a vested interest in very young children receiving well thought-out sexuality education.
In addition, it underlined that preparing children to cope with social realities is a core responsibility of public education - a strong argument in support of sexuality education in kindergarten and primary schools.
This decision highlights that a lack of knowledge, even from an early age, can expose children to physical, emotional and social harm. It is vital to give young people the means and skills to recognise sexual abuse, lay down boundaries and be aware of the ownership they hold over their bodies. Sexuality education fosters this type of literacy and builds the competences that help protect children from violence, coercion and gender inequity. It also supports them in developing the emotional and social intelligence that they need to build healthy and fulfilling relationships as they grow up.
A child’s right to be taught the skills that will prepare him or her for a responsible, safe and healthy life in a free society must clearly take precedence over a far-fetched interpretation of the right to privacy, of freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
There is no denying that parents also play, and will continue to play, a vital role in helping their children develop these crucial life skills. But some may be unable or unwilling to do so, and in any case individual families cannot foster these skills in their children’s peers and future partners. This is where society as a whole has a role to play in ensuring no young person is left behind.
By Julie Pernet, from the European Humanist Federation
*More information on this milestone decision: European Court of Human Rights, Case A.R. v. Switzerland, December the 19th 2017.
ECHR Press release, January 2018