How they do it in Lebanon

If Egypt’s government wants to look for lessons on how to turn popular support for sex education into an actual curriculum, Lebanon is worth watching. Since 2005, the government has been working to implement a “reproductive health and life skills” program for ages 6 to 18 in public and private schools.  Its content goes beyond barebones reproductive anatomy and physiology, to include contraception, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual abuse.  The material is not relegated to a couple of potentially missable lessons in biology class, but integrated into a range of courses, among them social sciences, languages and civic education.

The new curriculum is remarkable in many ways. It treats HIV/AIDS in a no-nonsense fashion, not only explicitly mentioning condoms as a means of protection, but also stressing the importance of accepting those people living with the infection. It directly tackles some popular misconceptions, among them masturbation-induced madness, that bathing during menstruation is harmful, and that “size of organs” matters. It addresses both the physical and psychological changes of puberty, and presents strategies to help students resist peer pressure. The curriculum returns year after year to sexual abuse, teaching younger kids how to say no, and older students about the laws to protect them and how to talk to their families about it.  It stresses equality between the sexes and actually goes as far as to criticize some of the country’s laws that discriminate against women, among them their inability to pass Lebanese nationality on to their children.

Certain topics, however, are still off the table. The curriculum emphasizes the dangers of abortion, which remains technically illegal on all but very limited medical grounds in the country. Early hopes by some sexual health experts that schools would discuss homosexuality, in a non-judgmental fashion, have had to be re-calibrated to reality. “Oh la, la,” was the response of one ministry official, with the shake of the head, when I asked if alternative sexual orientations would be explicitly taught in the new curriculum. And the emphasis is very much on abstinence before and fidelity within marriage as the optimal route to sexual happiness—a piece of common ground between Lebanon’s many religious sects.

Crafting a curriculum is one thing; actually teaching it quite another. Lebanon has been down this road before. In the late 1990s, a much tamer syllabus for young teenagers on human reproduction, with recommendations that teachers talk briefly on contraception and sexually transmitted diseases, was quickly shot down by religious groups. This time round, parental concern about their kids’ antics, on the streets and computer screens, as well as a rising tide of sexually transmitted infections, especially HIV, has pushed the curriculum ahead. Key to acceptance has been a careful canvassing of interested parties—students, parents, teachers and religious figures—and getting their buy-in.

Lebanon is very different in its makeup and internal dynamics to Egypt and neighbors. That being said, the approach advocates of sex education there have adopted—building alliances with national and international groups, canvassing broad social support to defang the opposition, and systematic teacher training—is relevant to any country considering a change in direction.