UNESCO Bangkok supports ‘DESIRE 2021: Digital Sexuality Education Conference Asia-Pacific’, from 9 through 21 November 2021
Nearly one billion people in the Asia-Pacific region are sexually active adolescents transitioning through a period in their lives that can be exciting and unsettling at the same time. Curiosity in young people arising from accelerated physical and emotional changes drives them often to seek help and advice from persons or platforms they feel comfortable with. There is growing evidence that young people are increasingly engaging with the internet and social media in search of information on sexual and reproductive health, as part of their informal and formal learning. Social media sites, such as Youtube and Instagram, are among the main tools that they use to socialize and access for sexual and reproductive health content, including topics in curriculum-based education about cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality, collectively referred to by educators as ‘comprehensive sexuality education’.
Digital technology can provide opportunity for content creators, educators, and health service providers to reach young people on a very broad scale, and often in more innovative ways than via conventional, offline channels. In addition, youth-led sexuality education platforms in the Asia-Pacific region engage millions of views of their content. Such options available to young people include a Chatbot application from Pakistan, a Tiktok account from Indonesia, a podcast channel crafted for South-East Asia women, and many others. Nevertheless, despite the opportunities offered by digital spaces for advancing sexuality education, and the evolution of the digital sexuality education landscape in the region, more needs to be done to ensure that young people can access empowering and accurate sexual and reproductive health and rights information in healthy online communities. Only then might the region’s youth make more responsible and better-informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive lives.
From 19 through 21 November 2021, the ‘DESIRE 2021 digital sexuality education virtual conference’ (‘Desire 2021’) was convened by UNFPA Indonesia and Siklus Foundation, with additional support provided by UNFPA Asia-Pacific Regional Office, UNESCO Bangkok, and UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office. Over the course of three days, this special virtual event highlighting digital sexuality education (DSE) featured more than 20 sessions, among them lively group conversations, creator’s labs, and a virtual community café. A highlight was an online exhibition showcasing 42 virtual booths by NGOs, digital content creators and youth-led organizations. Altogether, a total of 360 participants joined the event, among them 62 content creators and youth-led platforms hailing from 19 countries. ‘Desire 2021’ sessions focused on opportunities and challenges surrounding the digital sexuality, and featured best practices and some of the latest evidence and resources on the subject. The overarching aim of the conference was to strengthen engagement between digital sexuality education community members and to enhance young people’s leadership in the field.
Within the Asia-Pacific region, there are currently many solutions for DSE available and readily accessible to youth via the internet. These DSE solutions are developed by a range of organizations operating in varied contexts, and with various objectives and target audiences. DSE platforms enable educators and learners to use different teaching and learning formats tailored specifically to country context and audience. For example, the concept of contraception and family planning may be limited or illegal in some societies and among certain groups and ages of young people. It can therefore be challenging for DSE content creators and platform developers to understand their ‘end users’, including such users’ literacy levels, in order to create digital solutions that enhance a visitor’s learning experiences. One conference speaker shared a case study about the community-led chatbot Raaji, which aims to inform and empower girls and women with menstrual education, as well as help in busting longstanding menstruation myths in Pakistan.
Digital platforms are another point of entry for sexuality education and should complement in- and out-of-school sexuality education and youth-friendly health services. Conference speakers shared tips and lessons learned from successful integrations of DSE with existing school curricula, to complement school-based CSE and expand learner’s access to appropriate health services. In practice, offline and online sexual and reproductive health education and services are often intertwined. In the conference’s opening session, Dr Subandi Sardjoko, Deputy Minister for Human, Society, and Cultural Development, Ministry of Development Planning of Indonesia, noted ‘A Digital platform is not a silver bullet. Digital sexuality and reproductive health and rights platforms should complement and enhance existing health systems both online and offline’. Content creators may need to gather insights from offline health and community services so as to be better informed of the local sexual education and technological landscape. By the same token, the online data generated by user experiences can be utilized for offline advocacy and referral of young people to health care or legal services, thereby connecting a digital space with in-person care and support. One example showcased at DESIRE 2021 is the Yogyakarta-based health care service UNALA Youth, which is supported by UNFPA. From January through October 2021, UNALA Youth received more than 2,000 hotline calls through Whatsapp, and more than 400 messages via Instagram, for consultation support, primarily on mental health and personal relationship issues.
Digital sexuality education is also about a healthy online community, and the overall health and well-being of learners. Some young people find online communities to be a safe space for seeking help, or for expressing one’s identity, especially lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) youth residing in conservative communities, where open and unfettered discussion of sexuality is limited. From time to time, however, digital spaces may unfortunately replicate the inequality, cultural stereotypes and sexuality-repressive norms encountered in everyday life. DSE platform managers and users therefore have a mutual responsibility to ensure that digital spaces remain safe, inclusive and empowering for the young people navigating them. Risks that accompany increased use of the internet include the possibility of online sexual abuse and exploitation, or even cyberbullying and sexual grooming, and these need to be adequately addressed by online platforms. It is important for all to bear in mind that young people who are vulnerable offline are prone to being vulnerable online. As Ms Vithika Yadav, country manager of the sexual and reproductive health and rights information digital platform, Love Matters India, noted in one of the conference’s talk sessions:
The idea of a digital space is not just about a platform operating in separate groups of those who think alike. Digital space is public space. There should be no reason that people feel unsafe or feel less equal to express opinions online because of their identity and gender.
Yadav calls upon the regional online community to ‘make the digital space safe for everyone’.
By conference end, it was abundantly clear to participants and observers alike that in the imminent post COVID-19 era, it will be more important than ever to leverage the use of digital spaces for regaining momentum lost during the pandemic on expanding young people’s access to sexual and reproductive health services and information in Asia-Pacific.
By Jenelle Babb, Regional Advisor, and Pokrapee Chindain, Junior Project Consultant, Education for Health and Wellbeing Team, Section of Inclusive Quality Education, UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education (UNESCO Bangkok)
Conference materials, recordings and the virtual exhibition of DESIRE 2021 will remain available on the conference website through 20 December 2021: https://desire2021.com/
 ‘My Body is My Body, My Life is My Life: Sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people in Asia and the Pacific’, https://asiapacific.unfpa.org/en/publications/my-body-my-body-my-life-my-life-sexual-and-reproductive-health-and-rights-young-people
 ‘Sexuality education in digital spaces in Asia: insight report’, https://bangkok.unesco.org/content/sexuality-education-digital-spaces-asia-insight-report
Main photo credit: ©UNFPA Indonesia