A selection of sex-education materials (David Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

Tunisia Starts Sex-Ed Initiative

The North African nation is set to be the first Arab country in 19 years to introduce sex education in schools

For the sole 2011 Arab Spring success story, the only country to emerge a democracy after a series of uprisings against autocratic rulers in the Middle East and North Africa region, Tunisia has gone through many firsts this year.

Beji Caid Essebsi, the first post-Arab Spring leader of Tunisia, died in July of this year. For the first time, round one of the presidential elections was before parliamentary ones. Les Dunes Electroniques festival, a cultural staple, returned to Tunisia after a five-year hiatus due to terrorism. And this month, Tunisia will be the first country in the Arab world to implement sex education in schools since 2000, when it was pulled from Lebanon’s schools.

Recently, the Tunisian Education Ministry, in partnership with the United Nations Population Fund, the Tunisian Sexual and Reproductive Health Association and the Arab Institute for Human Rights announced that sex education would be a part of the public school curriculum starting in kindergarten.

The initiative will be piloted for two years in select locations around the country, starting before the end of this year, with the possibility of a national rollout afterward.

For Khaled Diab, a journalist and writer until recently based in Tunisia, the bold step of including sex ed in schools in a region with traditional norms is not shocking.

“That Tunisia should take a pioneering role in Arab sex education is unsurprising given how progressive the country has been for decades when it comes to gender equality and rights,” he told The Media Line.

For example, Tunisia legalized abortion in 1965.

The same decade saw a countrywide campaign to lower Tunisia’s birth rate.

“[Starting in the 1960s,] Tunisia introduced a huge national family planning program to reduce the demography,” Khedija Arfaoui, feminist author and freelance researcher, told The Media Line.

The school reform comes on the backdrop of a society growing more outraged over sexual harassment. Last month, pictures taken by a 19-year-old student of a Tunisian politician masturbating outside her school sparked ire among the populace and inspired Tunisian women to talk about their own personal experiences.

“Tunisia took this step because there is a growing recognition that a lack of sexual awareness causes many problems,” journalist Diab said. “It is also partly intended to combat sexual harassment, awareness of which has grown considerably with the emergence of Tunisia’s own version of the Me Too movement.”

Researcher Arfaoui also argues that Tunisia’s decision is important for the wellbeing of women and girls.

“It will protect women and children’s health, as it did in the past,” she said.

Arfaoui explained that 50 years ago, there were sex-ed programs in Tunisia’s schools, which were later dropped.

“Secondary schools had visiting teams that showed films and printed materials to students,” she said.

In the world of public policy, progressive expansion of rights is sometimes followed by their curtailment as a reaction to the initial change. Tunisia dropping sex-ed was an example of this.

Diab warns that there could be societal pushback as a result of the recent return of such information in the classroom.

“Many Tunisians are deeply conservative and this can potentially create a backlash,” she said. “In addition, making sex education culturally sensitive, as the government intends, could potentially be problematic, given the widespread stigmatization of homosexuality and sex out of wedlock.”

It seems unlikely that many other Arab nations will follow Tunisia’s example and adopt sex ed in their schools.

“It will almost certainly not occur in the most conservative corners of the Arab world,” Diab said. “The hope is that other more progressive Arab societies join Tunisia and help create  strong momentum for change in other parts of the region.”

Arfaoui argues that the best hope lies in Tunisia’s neighbors: “At least some countries will definitely follow Tunisia’s lead; I’m thinking in particular of North Africa.”

Meanwhile, back in Tunisia, many simply hope that the sex-ed program will have staying power this time.

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