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As discussed earlier, sex education in Austria is present and takes place through formal instruction generally in biology or health education lessons in the primary and lower secondary school levels. The topics set for discussion are age-appropriate, scientifically accurate, address violence and other risk behaviors, talk about HIV (and other STIs) as well as gender equality, and touch on same-sex relationships. It includes most of the elements that have been recommended by the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD 1994), which explicitly calls on governments to provide sexuality education to promote the:
“Well-being of adolescents and specifies key features of such education.
It clarifies that such education should take place both in schools and at the community level, be age-appropriate, begin as early as possible, foster mature decision-making, and aim to advance gender equality. In addition, the Programme of Action urges governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to ensure that such programs address specific topics – including gender relations and equality, violence against adolescents, responsible sexual behavior, contraception, family life, and STIs, HIV, and AIDS prevention”
However, covering topics set by a framework that was acceptable in 1994 is insufficient in 2020.
Furthermore, there is a lack of consistency in its delivery over a longer period of time. According to the International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education (2018), also known as the Guidance, topics in sexuality should be covered both in breadth and depth and should be delivered to learners over the entire period of time that they are in education, rather than in a one-off intervention (UNESCO, 2018).
However, in Austria around only half of all adolescents are believed to be receiving a more comprehensive form of sex education, where social skills, relationship building, pleasure and sexuality are discussed in greater depth. This is being offered as an option to students in some schools, mostly through paid workshops that take place once or twice for a period of two hours during their entire school education (Seiler-Ramadas et al., 2020a). This inconsistency and exclusivity go against the recommendations set by the Guidance.
Comprehensive sexuality education, as provided in these workshops is more relevant to contemporary times, as it goes further than the topics provided in schools by including issues that may be challenging in some social and cultural contexts, as well as aspects that can enrich their learning experience. As defined in the Guidance (UNESCO, 2018):
Comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) is a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical, and social aspects of sexuality. It aims to equip children and young people with knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values that will empower them to: realize their health, well-being, and dignity; develop respectful social and sexual relationships; consider how their choices affect their own well-being and that of others; and, understand and ensure the protection of their rights throughout their lives.
In paper 3, one of the main problems highlighted the challenges of delivering comprehensive sexuality education was the fact that there was a lack of teacher training. This can be problematic for both the educator and the student. Without proper training, the educator’s skills to facilitate teaching about sexuality and its diverse themes in a safe and supportive way are undermined (Giami et al, 2006). In turn, the student may lose confidence in the teacher, or in oneself. There are times when teachers may themselves face their own personal struggles to deliver sex education effectively. It may sometimes be difficult for some to ‘unlearn’ what they may have learned that could be incongruent to the way current issues in sexuality are viewed (Seiler-Ramadas et al, 2020b). Some teachers may abstain from teaching sex education for this very reason, or not want to be trained in delivering these lessons (Depauli, 2018). However, teaching sex education without any training would reflect poor quality in its lessons and reinforce the low-status sex education already has in schools (Alldred et al., 2009). When teachers are willing to positively and competently include contemporary issues in sex education, school climate can vastly improve, helping students to have a better sense of connection to their peers and teachers (Seiler-Ramadas et al., 2020b). Teachers in Austria to date, have not been trained specifically to professionally deliver sex education, although this may change in the near future (Depauli, 2018).
Another contributing issue towards delivering comprehensive sexuality education is the level of force it has within the education system. Sex education is primarily guided by policies at multiple levels, depending on the combined agreement of national laws, school policies, health consultants, parents, religious groups, and sex educators (Seiler-Ramadas et al., 2020b). At the national level, the Federal Ministry of Education states that sexuality is one of the core themes that is addressed across the curriculum, primarily in biology, but also in religion, psychology, and philosophy (Federal Ministry of Education, 2015). At the school level, there are different topics of emphasis depending on the school type. While secondary schools have an outline for sexuality education that includes and strives to promote nutrition, sexuality, addiction prevention, stress, violence, sexism and gender norms, sexuality education in polytechnic schools emphasizes addiction prevention and contraception (BMUK, 2020a, b). The policies can however be only enforced in its entirety when all schools, teachers, and parents participate in their implementation, with the support of professional consultants as well as cultural groups. Most significantly, sexuality education needs to include the children not just as recipients, but also as participants in the co-construction of quality lessons (UNESCO, 2018).
Hence policies play a significant role, but teachers as educators are crucial in making these policies work. This is where teacher training cannot be under-emphasized. An important indicator for effectively trained teachers of sexuality education is that their decisions on teaching content are based on regulations and policies relevant to federal, state, and local laws (Depauli, 2018).
It has been further pointed out in paper 3 that from a public health perspective, policies to ensure adolescent sexual health have been predominantly made in the context of STI screening policies and preventing unwanted pregnancies through disseminating information on contraceptive methods as well as condom efficacy. Children or adolescents who feel healthy about their sexuality are mentally healthy as well, and there is a strong possibility that there are many who are not so. This scenario should be seriously considered when implementing public health policies. Mental health attributed to sexual well-being should be ensured by policies that look into mental screening and educating the broader public on the effects of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, bullying, or homophobic sentiments to name a few. Currently, Austria has no policies on attending to the mental or physical needs of children and adolescents (Jansen et al, 2018)
Without a robust public health stance on ensuring the sexual health and well-being of children and adolescents, and with weak supportive systems linking public health policies to the implementation and provision of sex education, the Standards for Sexuality Education would be difficult to fully put into practice (Seiler-Ramadas et al., 2020b). In the Standards, which is the guiding principle for sexuality education in European countries, it explicitly states that sexuality education should provide young people with information, skills, and positive values to help them make knowledgeable choices and behave respectfully towards themselves and others (Federal Centre for Health Education, 2010). It is guided by the holistic approach and focuses less on risk behavior and outcomes as such, but more on reflection and choice. This style of education aims to empower young people to make considered decisions about their own lives and to develop critical thinking skills and a sense of self that would result in better sexual health in the broadest sense (Boonstra, 2011). If this can be applied successfully in sexuality education, young people would be able to better recognize and regulate their emotions, constructively express themselves and be able to establish positive and empathetic relationships with others (Seiler-Ramadas et al., 2020b).
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