The backlash against sex education in the UK will ultimately harm children

A new British sex education curriculum has sparked outrage from religious parents. But where are the voices of young South Asian women in this debate?

Ritu Mahendru
16 July 2019, 8.00am
Parents demonstrate against sex education curriculum in Birmingham, UK 2019.
Aaron Chown/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

I’ve done community work and research on sexual health issues in South Asia, and with the diaspora in the UK, for nearly two decades. On countless occassions, parents have told me they want to take their children out of sex education lessons, citing religious concerns. Last year, a Bengali woman in London told me these classes were “haram [forbidden by Islamic teaching] to our communities and we would want our children to opt out of this in school”.

In February 2019, the Department for Education released new relationships and sex education (RSE) guidance for all UK schools, updating the curriculum for the first time in 20 years following a period of consultations with parents, teachers and religious groups. This new guidance which will come into effect in September 2020, covers education for primary as well as secondary school students, including general health education for all ages.

Significantly, the new guidance is LGBTIQ inclusive; it teaches primary school students, for example, about the existence of LGBTIQ families. It obliges schools to increase the time they spend teaching students about menstrual health and informed consent, and also introduces new guidance on risks related to social media and the internet, for instance ‘sexting’ and ‘revenge porn’.

Many educators have seen this as a much-awaited, progressive move. But there’s also been a fierce backlash from some parent groups which, on grounds of religion, argue that sex education should not be a mandatory part of the school curriculum. In particular, they’ve called for the scrapping of lessons that reference LGBTIQ relationships. At least five schools have suspended these classes already.

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Protests began earlier this year at Parkfield community school in Birmingham, in England’s West Midlands region. There, teacher Andrew Moffat came under fire for disclosing his sexuality to his students and designing a ‘No Outsiders’ programme to promote diversity. Such protests then spread to other schools in Birmingham as well as in other cities including Manchester.

“What has frustrated me the most ... is the complete neglect of South Asian voices in this debate, especially young women’s voices.”

In Birmingham, 32-year-old Shakeel Afsar, whose daughter attends an Islamic school, has taken centre stage in these demonstrations. Recently, she stood outside the city’s Anderton Park school with a megaphone declaring "Our kids, our choice". (Last month, a court order banned people, specifically protesters like Afsar, from demonstrating in an ‘exclusion zone’ around the school).

Ultimately, the new RSE strategy still allows parents to withdraw their children from sex education but they will have to seek the headteacher’s permission, which can be denied. Under the new guidance children can opt into sex education themselves, starting three terms before their 16th birthday. This is important: in my experience, headteachers often defer to parents (but there is still the risk of being caught for those students who opt-in on their own).

What has frustrated me the most, including before the government published its new guidelines, is the complete neglect of young South Asian voices in this debate, especially young women’s voices. They are forced into the role of passive subjects. The media, politicians, teachers, parents and religious institutions have failed to let girls speak up about their desires and needs.

LGBT+ Muslim campaigners Saima Razzaq and Khakan Qureshi with activists in Birmingham, May 2019.
Katja Ogrin/EMPICS Entertainment. All rights reserved.

In the past few years, I've led research projects on sex education and sexual health – working with Indian, Bengali and Afghan communities all across London. Some of these results will be published later this year. Repeatedly, I found that young people lacked basic information about their bodies and sex. Often, they’d been absent from sex education lessons at school, and from wider debates on these topics.

Some of the young women I interviewed described getting pregnant because, as one explained, they “didn’t know how to say no to unprotected sex”. I also heard about cases of sexual abuse by close family or community members. “My first sexual experience was with my uncle”, a 19-year-old British Indian woman told me. “I completely froze and didn’t know what to do”.

This abuse happened while her mother was away in India, she continued. She chose not to speak out about this because she feared it would cause divisions in her family. She explained: “My family can get quite rowdy. He has a very good reputation in the community and was extremely religious”. Women also described how missing sex education lessons impacted other parts of their lives.

A young Bengali woman in Tower Hamlets, in east London, told me: “I think wearing heals could affect the size of my vagina and I might lose my virginity. Also, I don’t think my bits look normal”. An 18-year-old Afghan woman said “I didn’t know women could cum”, explaining: “my mum withdrew me and my sister from RSE lessons. I didn’t know about it [the female orgasm]”.

Another young British Indian woman told me her mother found out she was pregnant, at 16, because her doctor was also Indian and knew her family. “It happens in our school as well. Everyone knows everyone”, she added.

She wouldn’t trust her school, especially as it’s located in a diaspora community, to keep attendance of sex education lessons in strict confidence. In such contexts, how can we expect teenagers to independently ‘opt-in’ to these classes? Do they really have the freedom of choice?

‘Assault on the family’

It’s not just Muslim parents protesting the new RSE guidance. A conservative Christian secondary school assistant, Kirstie Higgs, recently lost her job after posting an online petition against LGBTIQ issues being taught at her son’s primary school in Manchester. (She is now taking legal action for unfair dismissal, represented by lawyers at the Christian Legal Centre).

The new guidance has also been criticised by some journalists like Simon Jenkins and politicians like MP Roger Godsiff. Education secretary Damian Hinds said “what is taught, and how, is ultimately a decision for the school”. The founder of a campaign against RSE, Katherine Sarah Godfrey-Faussett, called it “an assault on the family” and “a war on morality and on our spirituality”.

But the real assault is on the young South Asian girls who face the physical and psychosocial consequences of early sexual relationships; who get sexually abused, including within their own families and communities; and who are let down by the teachers, health professionals and governments that have failed to provide them with the adequate information they need to negotiate safe sex.

Many of the South Asian teenage girls I’ve spoken to, including for my recent research, remain unaware of basic information and risks related to their own bodies. I felt it was crucial to quote some of these young women directly – in order to hear their voices, which otherwise have been so effectively silenced.

When the media and politicians prioritise the voices of religious parents and groups who seek to control their children, especially girls, we fail these children. Nigel Farage, Tommy Robinson and other British far right characters have meanwhile used debates around sexual conservativism in Muslim communities to claim that all Muslims are ‘backwards’.

We must give young South Asian women the platform instead. Sex education must be taught from primary school to tackle child sexual abuse and other sensitive issues that put girls in vulnerable situations. Left unchecked, the backlash against sex education in the UK will ultimately harm children.

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