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Moving the 2030 agenda from paper to practice, youth as change-makers lie in the heart of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on the ground. However, the issue of availability and accessibility of safe space where young people can freely express themselves and engage in social affairs for positive impact without being excluded and intimidated remain challenging.
Instead of waiting for governments, institutions and organizations to build the safe space for youth, the question is: Can we as young change-makers create that space by ourselves?
My name is , a 26-year-old Tai ethnic minority from Xishuangbanna, Southwestern borderland of China. As a youth advocate for gender equality, I have been engaged in youth empowerment, gender equality and non-discrimination at the community level. The last seven months in particular, after I finished my work in UN agencies in Thailand and Kenya, I came back to my hometown to start a voluntary youth-led , introducing Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) in schools and villages. So far, I have set up a team of over 60 volunteers, organized 53 workshops, and trained over 5000 people. The initiative is exemplary of youth creating safe space for and by themselves.
The initiative is exemplary of youth creating safe space for and by themselves.
To promote gender equality in China, it is almost impossible to organize collective movements or activities such as campaigns and protests. However, no one would oppose or resist an education initiative that is aligned with international standards and genuinely beneficial for our society and future generations. I thus figured out that CSE is such a great framework, dealing with SDG3 Good Health and Well-being, SDG4 Quality Education and SDG5 Gender Equality, to be introduced into my hometown to enhance people’s health and well-being and to promote gender equality. But things are not easy when it comes to understanding CSE.
In the context of China, the topic of sexuality is a taboo and very few people talk about it openly. As a Chinese idiom goes, “谈性色变 Tan Xing Se Bian”; it means people turn pale at the mention of sex. Every time people get to know that I work on sexuality education, not surprisingly, most reactions have been, “What? Sex?”, then that is the end of the conversation. In most cases, teachers who are supposed to teach sexual and reproductive health find it embarrassing to deliver the lessons. Given the fact that in China sexuality education is not compulsory in school curricula, many schools do not provide such course simply because it does not relate to students’ grades. Although it is not rare to have issues at school, such as HIV infections, teenage pregnancy, gender-based violence and violence based on gender expression and sexual orientation, schools lack trained teachers who are able to deliver CSE; schools lack the safe space where students can freely embrace positive sexuality and learn to protect themselves; and schools lack effective mechanism in monitoring and solving problems.
As a Chinese idiom goes, “谈性色变 Tan Xing Se Bian”; it means people turn pale at the mention of sex.
According to the revised edition of International Technical Guidance on 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”.
CSE is a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality.
Helping people especially gate-keepers such as governmental entities, schools and parents better understand CSE and allow us to conduct the trainings has become the most difficult part of our work. How do we open the door of CSE’s safe space?
At first, I tried the top-down approach. I reached out to local education bureau and other relevant public authorities for collaboration. They all reckoned it is a great initiative but rejected our proposal. As one deputy director general said, “We would support you only if you work with Women’s Association”. I then contacted a few school headmasters who found the initiative necessary to be introduced in their schools, but again it did not work out. One of the headmasters said, “We will invite you after you get the permission from education bureau”. Another one noted, “We prefer our school teachers to do the work, not outsiders”. Ironically, the teachers from within do not have the professional knowledge and skills in CES. They came to attend my workshop and found it helpful, but still failed to convince the school management.
I started taking the bottom-up approach, which helped me find the answer. Given my personal network, our team managed to get into the villages for trainings with contents designed for different age groups. Then we got the invitation from teachers to conduct trainings for their classes, and parents committees who can organize extra-curriculum activities also invited us from time to time. Despite the long process, gradually, the positive feedback reached the school management so we were asked to give lectures at school level. To get CSE into more schools, many advised us to avoid the word “性 (sex/sexuality)” which is considered too sensitive. Instead of calling the initiative “sexuality education”, we called it “health education or prevention education”. I didn’t like the idea since other terms do not represent the knowledge, skills and attitudes that CSE aims to convey. Most importantly, I contend that the more we talk bout sexuality, the less people will feel sensitive about it. The initiative is a process of desensitization and normalization of sexuality education in people’s daily lives, thereby creating a safe space for the public to face the issues rather than avoiding it.
To get CSE into more schools, many advised us to avoid the word “性 (sex/sexuality)” which is considered too sensitive.
Why do people find CSE sensitive? As I trained more and more people from different age groups, it is much easier to start CSE at students’ early age. I realized that the sensitivity of CSE has nothing to do with school kids, instead it is those adults or gate-keepers who are in power who find it sensitive and turn it away. The unequal power relations should not be ignored when it comes to the challenges of building safe spaces. For the generation that is at decision-making level, people have never received CSE which hence becomes a way of countering the social norms that they have been following and safeguarding, possibly as a potential threat to their power and authorities. To maintain our safe space, we need to develop it strategically, playing around the wording and the way of telling stories could be very helpful in terms of not getting into trouble, if not winning support, from the powerful.
Once the safe space of CSE is created, we should make it more visible to reach out to vulnerable and marginalized groups and provide support, while attracting more and more change-makers to contribute to the space building. As the initiative grows, the number of volunteers saw a quick increase from only four people originally to over 60 members, from which I have trained 12 active players into trainers, which is also a process of empowering youth. As they said, “We have benefited a lot as we participate in the process, slowly we also become influencers in our circle of friends”. Another one shared, “I wanted to do the similar project long time ago, but I was alone”.
The safe space does not only exist in our CSE workshops where students can freely talk about sexuality, express their gender identity and sexual orientation. It also expands to their families which boosts constructive inter-generational dialogue. For example, a mother of two kids thanked me for the trainings. She told me that her elder daughter had started getting her menstrual cycle recently and she is able to handle it properly and feels comfortable to talk about it with them, parents. Her daughter asked, “Mom, do boys also use sanitary towel when they get spermatorrhea”. Besides, the mother noted that her family relationship has improved as they have created a safe and enabling environment where children trust parents, explore positive sexuality and good sexual and reproductive health together.
All in all, the safe space of CSE, as a way of enhancing social inclusion, must be maintained and safeguarded in a sustainable way. Everyone has the right to receive CSE, which perhaps more efficiently should start with adults or gate-keepers. Gaining support from them will largely help those talented and self-motivated young change-makers like me to develop such established civic space, making it safer, more accessible, more inclusive and more sustainable.
Read more about the initiative through this list:
谈性不色变： 西双版纳全面型性教育项目走进傣乡 (Article): https://bit.ly/2H8NV6d
西双版纳全面型性教育项目组走进州二中 (Video): https://bit.ly/2vqzBEK
全面型性教育走进州二中 (Article): http://www.bndaily.com/c/2018-04-01/83684.shtml
普文镇开办“儿童全面型性教育”讲座 (Article): http://www.bndaily.com/c/2018-04-14/84607.shtml
西双版纳全面型性教育走进景洪市第一小学 (Video): starting from 10:50）
Featured image: Kefan leading the CSE session in schools.
Kefan Yang is an innovative educator promoting gender equality through education, a youth activist campaigning for equity, social justice and equality. He cares about the marginalized groups, especially religious ethnic children, adolescents and youth who are living with HIV, are subject to gender-based violence and violence based on gender expression and sexual orientation. Kefan is Dai (Tai Lüe) ethnic minority himself from Xishuangbanna, Southwestern borderland of China.
Currently, Kefan is leading a team of over 60 young change-makers introducing comprehensive sexuality education into villages and schools of Xishuangbanna. Prior to this, he was a Senior Fellow for ICT in Education at the UNESCO Regional Office for Eastern Africa in Nairobi. He had also worked for UNESCAP on Strategic Communications and the ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific on Gender Equality and Non-discrimination. Kefan holds a Master of Science degree in Media, Communication and Development from The London School of Economics (LSE). While studying in the UK, Kefan received the Leadership Award for 2015 LSE Faith & Leadership Initiative, which was presented by HRH The Prince of Wales at Clarence House.