UNESCO Launches Joint Report on Disability-inclusive Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) in Asia and the Pacific
Over 600 registrants and more than 250 participants attest to the timeliness of the topic and its potential in the Asia-Pacific region.
By Chairat Chongvattanakij, Public Information Volunteer, Public Information and Outreach Team, UNESCO Bangkok
To commemorate the 2022 International Day of Persons with Disabilities, UNESCO Bangkok and Leonard Cheshire, together with the Disability-Inclusive Education in Asia-Pacific Working Group, UNFPA Asia-Pacific Regional Office, and the SEAMEO Regional Centre for Special Educational Needs jointly hosted a webinar on 2 December 2022 to launch the UNESCO - Leonard Cheshire report, ‘Disability-inclusive Comprehensive Sexuality Education in Asia and the Pacific: an assessment of teacher needs’ (hereafter ‘Report’). The event was moderated by Ms Suhaila binti Mohamad, Programme Associate at SEAMEO Regional Centre for Special Educational Needs.
Opening remarks by Ms Barkha Henry, Regional Manager of Leonard Cheshire Asia and Co-Chair of the Disability-Inclusive Education in Asia-Pacific Working Group, drew attention to the stigma and misconceptions that surround people living with disabilities, including the false perception that they are either asexual or, conversely, sexually uninhibited. In fact, research demonstrates that young people living with disabilities are sexually active and express similar concerns over sexuality, relationships and identity as their peers. Despite having the same rights as other individuals to partake in safe and fulfilling sexual experiences, indeed experiences that are free of coercion and violence, young people living with disabilities may struggle with poor sexual self-image. Notably, research also indicates that these members of society are disproportionately affected by sexual violence. It is therefore essential that comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) be tailored to the specific needs of youth living with disabilities, not only for the purposes of preventing bullying and violence, but also to empower young people living with disabilities to lead healthy sexual lives and to fully enjoy their rights. In his opening remarks, Mr Setareki S. Macanawai, Chief Executive Officer of the Pacific Disability Forum, pointed out that the intersection of disability and sexuality makes for a highly sensitive topic, albeit one that needs to be addressed frankly rather than watered down or shunned as taboo.
Research by Dr Mark Carew, Principal Researcher at Leonard Cheshire (UK), has brought to light the barriers to disability-inclusive CSE. Undertaken by Dr Carew and his team, this research included a survey of teachers from Mongolia, Nepal, the Pacific Islands, the Philippines, and Thailand. The survey found that half the participants had received pre-service CSE training, and only 4 in 10 participants had received disability-inclusive CSE training. Although 9 in 10 teachers who responded to this regional survey regarded CSE topics as important for learners with disabilities, a third of the teachers who had received CSE training indicated that they felt unprepared to provide CSE to these learners, citing the lack of CSE training content tailored to specific impairment groups. Moreover, teachers expressed the need for additional classroom resources to enhance the effectiveness of disability-inclusive CSE, such as visual media for students with hearing impairment.
Another key finding from the Report was that teachers tended to be more familiar with various biological aspects of CSE than with topics related to sexual and reproductive health rights. This was partly due to national curricula in which CSE was covered as part of health and physical education programmes. Beyond the school setting itself, cultural norms within different societies may affect the delivery of CSE. Dr Marie Grace Gomez, Leonard Cheshire’s research team lead in the Philippines, observed that unmarried female teachers in the country were reluctant to provide CSE because they feared being perceived as promiscuous. Additionally, a Mongolia case study demonstrated that rural-urban disparity also exacerbated the obstacles to disability-inclusive CSE. Dr Batdulam Tumenbayar, Leonard Cheshire’s research team lead in Mongolia, pointed out that in rural areas, parents of children with hearing impairment had little access to sign language training, thus limiting parents’ ability to communicate with their children. She noted that six special schools were concentrated in Ulaanbaatar, which meant that students with disabilities from other parts of the country needed to reside in dormitories, where, given the absence of parent figures, the teachers’ role in providing quality CSE was even more critical.
As noted by Dr Batdulam, such schools are ‘below international standards’, and teachers are not equipped with the resources to address students’ CSE needs. Even more alarming, children living with disabilities in Nepal make up a staggering 80 per cent of all out-of-school children, meaning that they have no access to CSE in a formal educational setting.
In light of such findings, the Report underscores the need for both CSE training materials and classroom resources targeting learners with specific disabilities. Existing CSE resources and curricula should also be aligned with national policies on disability-inclusive education. The Report further recommended that regional best practices be identified, and teacher training enhanced, to address the non-biological aspects of CSE, as well as the stigma and misconceptions about the sexuality of young people with disabilities. Another key recommendation brought on by the Report was that CSE training should be extended to the wider community, especially to the parents and caregivers of learners with disabilities.
The webinar included a panel discussion moderated by Ms Jenelle Babb, Regional Advisor, Education for Health and Well-being Team at UNESCO Bangkok. The discussion expanded the scope of the Report to other countries in the region and added nuance to the research findings and recommendations. Regarding the challenges of delivering disability-inclusive CSE in an integrated classroom, Mr Tarma, Lecturer at the State University of Jakarta, observed that, in Indonesia, 42.47 per cent of students with disabilities attend mainstream schools. However, only 16.21 per cent of such schools employ special education teachers who can cater to the particular needs of these students. Faced with bullying and accessibility issues at mainstream schools, many students with disabilities transfer to special schools, which represent just one per cent of all schools in Indonesia. Despite such challenges, there are promising developments in the region. Dr Alijah Ujang, Lecturer at the Institute of Teacher Education, Ilmu Khas Campus, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, remarked that the new curriculum for teacher training that was rolled out in Malaysia in June 2022 incorporates disability-inclusive pedagogy in every programme.
Mr Senal Senevirathne, of Youth Advocacy Network Sri Lanka, shared a case study that illustrated the sensitivity and specificity of the issues that must be taken into account in providing disability-inclusive CSE. In his discussion of the ‘We Hear You’ project, Mr Senevirathne recounted that, in Sri Lanka, people with hearing disability are afraid of inconveniencing others with the noises that they produce. In schools, teachers would admonish students with hearing disability for ‘dragging their feet’ noisily. One specific concern identified by Mr Senevirathne was that, once these students reached puberty, they were hesitant to explore their sexuality for fear of inadvertently making noises that might make others uncomfortable. This case study poignantly conveyed the importance of approaching disability-inclusive CSE with considerable empathy.
In reviewing the ways in which UNFPA country offices work to promote disability-inclusive CSE, Dr Yadanar, of the UNFPA Asia-Pacific Regional Office, emphasized ‘affirming sexual desire as natural and explicitly supporting students to identify boundaries.’ She discussed innovative approaches, such as the development of assistive technology, which is cost-effective for learners with disabilities, and which the UNFPA India Office plans to employ in providing disability-inclusive CSE. Notably, the UNFPA Mongolia Office offers art therapy to children with disabilities as well as their parents. Such efforts reflect Dr Yadanar’s conviction that, to be successful, disability-inclusive CSE must involve multiple stakeholders. Learners living with disabilities should be at the center of any endeavour to assist them, and the Report highlights how teachers can also be more effectively supported in their work. In addition, Dr Yadanar stressed that parents and caregivers, as well as civil society organizations and policy-makers must be engaged in the process of designing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating disability-inclusive CSE.
In closing remarks, Ms Margarete Sachs-Israel, Chief, Section of Inclusive Quality Education (IQE), at UNESCO Bangkok, mentioned that ‘access and participation’ are ‘key components of inclusion.’ But as Ms Sachs-Israel pointed out, in order for teachers to fully realize inclusion, all learners with disabilities must be acknowledged, welcomed and valued, especially in the context of quality CSE that is truly responsive to their needs. As is made clear by this Report, despite all its remarkable findings, even more data is needed to fully develop the guidelines, resources and best practices that would transform the current vision of providing universal quality, disability-inclusive CSE across Asia and the Pacific into reality.
Chairat Chongvattanakij is currently a volunteer for the Public Information and Outreach (PIO) team at the UNESCO Bangkok Office, where he supports UNESCO reporting, translation, media development, and related projects throughout Asia and the Pacific. In addition to his work as a professional translator, Chairat is an accomplished pianist and educator who holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Toronto, where he taught music theory and piano literature at the Faculty of Music. He has presented research papers at international academic conferences and delivered guest lectures and masterclasses at Mahidol University and Yamaha Music Academy, Bangkok.
To download the report and related publications:
For more information on UNESCO’s initiatives in CSE throughout Asia and the Pacific: