Civil society has warned of adverse social and health consequences after the Egyptian government ordered the removal of content related to male and female anatomy, reproductive health and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) from the school curriculum.
“We know most of this material wasn’t being taught, but removing it from the curriculum is a big step backwards,” says Noha Roushdy, researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
Egypt’s education ministry has instructed schools not to teach lessons on “reproduction and propagation methods”, “pollination and fertilisation” genetics, and anatomical illustrations of the male and female reproductive systems. Teachers were ordered to disregard chapters on these subjects in existing biology textbooks, and new textbooks have been printed that omit the lessons.
The revisions, according to the independent weekly Al-Youm Al-Sabaa, affect students between the ages of 12 and 17. The paper quoted a ministry source as saying the deleted materials would be replaced by teacher-led classroom discussions that “incorporate the latest information on the subject from sources other than school textbooks.”
Lessons on reproductive health were first added to the Egyptian curriculum following the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994. The conference asserted the right of all men and women to receive comprehensive information pertaining to reproductive health, and recommended including lessons on the subject in school textbooks.
The government’s decision to remove these lessons from the official curriculum could be the biggest setback in nearly two decades for civil society organisations working to improve public knowledge on reproductive health.
“Definitely there will be social and health consequences,” says Dr. Amal Abdel Hadi, an outspoken advocate of reproductive health rights. “There will be more misconceptions about sex, marital disharmony and sexual harassment… and the prevalence of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) will increase.”
Sex has always been a sensitive topic in Egypt, and society’s discomfort with discussing matters related to sexuality has impeded efforts to address health issues and control spiralling population growth. Abdel Hadi is particularly disturbed by what she sees as a growing conservative and religious trend that is putting piety and propriety ahead of people’s health and rights.
“In the 1960s and 1970s, when people discussed sexuality the focus was on good and bad relationships,” she told IPS. “Now it is only about what is halal (permissible) or haram (sinful), which moves the whole issue into the religious realm.”
Egyptian religious authorities have rejected the idea of educating school students about safe sex and STDs. When this came up for debate five years ago, one influential Islamic cleric insisted that students should learn about sex “in a way that doesn’t stir instincts, or offend public morality.”
Translated, that means sex should only be taught in a way that reinforces the morally accepted behaviour of abstinence until marriage and fidelity. In practice, when sex is discussed in the classroom at all, it is presented in a religious or biological context without ever exploring its social and psychological dimensions.
Surveys have shown that Egyptians, particularly young women, are poorly informed when it comes to reproductive health and safe sex practices. Most lack basic knowledge on anatomy, reproductive functions and STDs.
A public awareness study of HIV/AIDS conducted in 2008 revealed that less than two percent of women among the poorest fifth of Egyptians, and about 16 percent among the richest, knew the basic facts of the disease. Men were better informed, but less than a third of males in the wealthiest group were aware that a person could be HIV-positive yet still appear healthy.
Egypt is one of only five Arab countries to have included reproductive health in the public school curriculum. Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Bahrain teach basic sex education to secondary school students. In Lebanon, only private secular schools provide any instruction.
Dr. Mamdouh Wahba, chairman of the Egyptian Society for Family Health (ESFH), warns that removing lessons on reproductive health from school textbooks will perpetuate commonly held misconceptions about sex and undermine efforts to control STDs. He says in the absence of authoritative explanations of sex and reproduction, inquisitive youth will seek information from unscientific sources.
“They’ll end up learning about sex from their peers, the Internet and (pornography),” he says.
Egyptian media is playing an increasingly important role in educating the public on reproductive health, and the information stream is richer than it was just five years ago. Television programmes and radio talk shows frequently discuss sex-related issues, including previously taboo topics such as condom use, oral sex and masturbation.
The problem, says Wahba, is that poorly educated audiences are often unable to discern the quality of the information being presented. Facts and sound advice about sex-related issues are lost among the scores of programmes in which unqualified doctors and religious clerics dispense subjective or fallacious opinions.
Wahba says the ICPD established 16 years ago that it is the right of all youth to receive objective, scientific instruction on reproductive health and life skills.
“This could be done through extracurricular activities, but we need to reach all students, and in order to do that you must either make these activities obligatory or put them into the school curriculum,” he says.