Elephant in the Room

People Desk
Elephant in the RoomElephant in the Room

Iran is ranked as having some of the best health and education indices in the region by the United Nations Development Program. However, despite a comprehensive reproductive health (RH) program there is little on sex education.

The national curriculum does not offer any lessons on the subject at the academic level. There is hesitancy, many call it a taboo, to have an open debate on the matter.

This is not only stated by experts, but also reinforced by the increasing rate of divorce, “some 60% of which arise from sexual conflict,” social pathologist Dr. Majid Abhari told Mehr News Agency.

The fact has also been stated by Vice-President for Women and Family Affairs Shahindokht Molaverdi, and Mohammad Esmaeil Motlaq, head of Population and Family Health Office at the Health Ministry, according to  

That is because people enter into marriage bringing with them an inherited baggage of erroneous assumptions and misconceptions.

Young couples and state officials are both squeamish to talk about such issues that more often than not lead to misinterpretations.

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), sexual health education (SHE) has been recognized by international organizations as a human right, a necessity for development, and a promoter of equity, and achievement of the millennium development goals including gender equality, reducing maternal mortality, achieving universal access to RH and combating HIV/AIDS.

At a recent meeting between the Health Ministry and the Vice-Presidency for Women and Family Affairs, Health Minister Hassan Qazizadeh Hashemi singled out the absence of sexual health education as one of the major problems in the country.

“Disregard for RH education has given rise to problems in our society that we are afraid to articulate. We should talk about them scrupulously while upholding moral principles,” the news website quoted him as saying.

Denying such a debate has manifested in neurological and psychological problems and the trend is in no way contributing to the community’s wellbeing.

Health and sports deputy at the Ministry of Education, Mehrzad Hamidi, has also underlined the pressing need for SHE, “as a demand of social development in today’s world.”

 Sociocultural Challenges

The main sociocultural challenges to sexual health education in Iran are the taboos surrounding the subject. While many countries are seeking answers to the question of what kind of RH education their adolescents need, it still remains largely ignored in Iran.

A large part of sexual victimization of adolescents happens due to an inadequate educational system that fails to provide timely and effective information to youngsters who might find themselves trapped in an objectionable situation.

Without preparation, adolescents all over the world are vulnerable to sexual abuse, coercion, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy and unsafe abortion, costing nations millions of dollars annually in treatment costs.

A report by ISNA says the pattern of HIV transmission in Iran has changed from injecting drugs to unprotected sexual contact among young people.

Despite such clear reasons, SHE is a disputed issue and has faced challenges, in most cultures.

A comprehensive sexuality education program by UNFPA, ‘Giving Young People the Information, Skills and Knowledge They Need’, has provided ample evidence that equipping adolescents with age-appropriate and accurate sexual education programs protects and improves their reproductive health.

An appropriate and effective curriculum exposes individuals in different age groups to different decision-making models from an early age that could help them later in life.

The single-credit educational course ‘Family Planning’ has been a subject of debate as to whether or not it should be removed from university curricula or replaced with life-skills content. The only edifying source is a few hours of sex education classes mandated for couples seeking a marriage license, which is barely enough to address issues that may be unique to each individual, let alone make a difference in cases like HIV/AIDS transmission, marital sexual violence, and child abuse and so on.

Schools play minimal role in providing SHE to adolescents in Iran. Two studies by the Mashhad University of Medical Sciences show that sexual-related topics are less than 0.0004 of content of school textbooks. Also, sources of sexual knowledge among high school students are friends, books and magazines, and audiovisual materials. School training is the last resource in this increasingly important matter.

Ignoring health education, in particular SHE, is one of the inadequacies of the education system. Many students believe their sexual concerns and dilemmas could be sorted out through correct RH education in schools. Students point out to teachers and parents evading response to their questions about SHE and censoring such topics in textbooks as challenges to information on the subject.

 Scaring Tactics

One of the most important reasons for the silence about sexuality is the concerns of adults that SHE may encourage adolescents to be sexually active. Adolescents criticized adults’ negative attitude to sexuality and trying to use “scaring tactics” to put them off such issues.

Adolescents today have access to countless avenues of information, some of which may not be correct and can lead to mistakes in life.

A national drive has been launched to increase the population in the face of a rapid decline in the fertility rates, from above 6 births per woman at the time of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, to 1.9 now.

In response to projected changes in the age structure as well as the possibility of population decline, the Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei in May 2014 called on the government to implement a new population policy designed, inter alia, to boost fertility.

It goes without saying that population policies will have no impact so long as marriages keep falling apart. In the past three years, the ratio of divorce to marriage has risen 20%. A majority of divorces are due to sexual problems, which can be contained, if not fully prevented, once an appropriate and responsive SHE program is in place in schools.