BEIRUT: With the new high school year having started last week, the complete absence of sexual education in Lebanon’s public schools is having widespread physical and psychological ramifications on the Lebanese youth, experts warn.
While some private institutions include minimal sex education in their curricula – limited to reproductive health – there is no such information available in public institutions.
Sex education was first officially introduced in 1995, and was aimed at pupils in the eighth grade, ages 12 to 14. However it was withdrawn a few years later after facing fierce criticism from various religious factions in the country.
The Loyalty to the Resistance bloc slammed the program as being on a par with pornography and the Druze council said that it encouraged a blase attitude toward sex.
Efforts to re-introduce such education back into the curriculum have faced similar challenges ever since, although the government has now approved a limited program which should be introduced next year.
Ayman Assi, the president of Lebanon’s only sexual health clinic, Marsa, said that the country’s youth are actively encouraged not to talk about sexual health and sexuality.
“The youth in Lebanon are growing up in a society where religion and taboo dominate, and where their family will dismiss discussions about sex, or sex education, or even feelings,” he said.
As sex remains, for some, such a provocative subject this has a real impact on people’s access to sexual health information and services.
“Even if you go to the doctor,” Assi said, “you can’t talk about your sexual life unless you are married.”
“So society is blind about sexual life before marriage. And even once you are married there is still no access to sexual health services, only reproductive health services,” Assi added.
Marsa, which opened in February this year, is funded by the World Health Organization and Medico, a German nongovernmental organization.
Designed to be an open-minded and welcoming environment, Marsa offers free VCT – Voluntary Testing and Counseling – tests for the detection of HIV and Hepatitis B and C, and medical check-ups for all other Sexually Transmitted Infections and psychological counseling sessions, each at LL10,000.
The lack of any sexual health education has led to some serious misunderstandings and confusion, Assi said.
“It’s clear from people that come in here that they have not had access to information. They misinterpret normal things about their bodies, and they are afraid, often for no reason,” Assi said.
Perhaps most worrying is the ignorance of the necessity of practicing safe sex, Assi added.
“The most important thing is not even about which disease is which, the most important thing is protection when having sex,” he added.
Many clients at the clinic, Assi said, “don’t know how to use a condom, or even why you should use a condom.”
In terms of the counseling sessions, the psychologists will answer any questions related to sex and sexuality, and are “really attentive and open-minded. They are not here to judge people,” Assi said. “It’s a sad fact that some psychologists in this country will judge you if you talk about your sexuality.”
Lina Abou Habib, executive director of the Collective for Research and Training on Development – Action, a Beirut-based regional gender equality center, is concerned about the social and psychological effects that the dearth of sex education is having on Lebanon’s youth.
As “the educational system is taken over by faith-based organizations,” Habib said, it’s “therefore not surprising to see that religious education takes precedence over sex education.”
Because of this, Habib said, the country’s public education system does not encourage pupils “to develop critical thinking for themselves to think about sexual health and sexual choices.”
In turn, the country’s youth often grow up accepting the roles that society advocates for them, Habib said, and young women, in particular, are not taught to develop their own independence. “Children grow up with an idea of who has the right to pleasure and who doesn’t. They grow up with the idea that it’s okay for men to control women’s sexuality,” she added.
This attitude has wide-ranging consequences for young women, Habib believes: “When young girls do not know that a reproductive role in life does not have to be compulsory, and are being fed that marriage is the institution they should inspire to … when they are raised with the idea that they are their husband’s sexual object … of course you cannot expect young women to aim to have an economic, public or political role.”
For any future sex education program in Lebanon to be successful, Habib said, it must be comprehensive, and not merely physiological.
“It shouldn’t only cover family planning and safety, which are of course important, but it should mostly be about choice, and the freedom to exercise choice,” Habib said.
One group working to educate Lebanon’s youth is OSE – French for “dare” – the Organization for Sexuality Education. Comprised solely of volunteers who work in psychology, sexual health and education, the NGO carries out training sessions for teachers and workshops for students themselves, whilst also offering confidential advice on any issues related to sexual health and sexuality via their website.
The Social Affairs and Education ministries have given OSE their full backing, although the organization currently has no funding.
If schools ask for it, OSE will also give information sessions for parents first, so that they know exactly what their children will be taught about.
Mona Sabra, a gynecologist and sexologist who is working with OSE, said there is a clear demand from parents for sex education.
“There is a clear desire for us to talk to their children. As the issue is somehow still a taboo here in Lebanon, they would often rather someone else talked to their children about these issues,” Sabra said.
The program that the government has been working on is still lacking, Eli Abou Merhi, a jurist and activist with OSE, said, and this is where OSE hopes to fill the gap.
“The government will not tackle delicate information. The program they’re hopefully introducing next year does not go to the core and the development of sexuality, it’s more like ‘The chicken laid an egg.’”
Teaching adolescence about sex education is vital, Sabra added, to prevent psychological issues in later life.
“It’s the time where we can correct misconceptions and erroneous information. That’s why I feel it’s so important. Lebanon is a society in transition, we’re not a traditional society nor an open society so this is the best time to do this.”