Northern Irish activists call for comprehensive relationship and sex education

Recent studies have unveiled that lack of relationship and sex education (RSE) provisions and gender equality are inextricably linked.

One third of women worldwide have or will experience intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime, the World Bank Group reports. Not only is this a stark social issue, but one with huge economic implications that contribute to cultures of poverty.  UNESCO echoed this sentiment, sharing that gender-based violence (GBV) has surged since the outbreak of the global pandemic COVID-19 and called for universal awareness of the ‘shadow’ pandemic. Prevention and change should start within the school, they say, and that learning environments should be free of stigma and discrimination. Their study displayed that countries with the highest levels of GBV were the ones that lacked comprehensive relationship and sex education (RSE) the most, depicting GBV as a “double-edged sword” as it simultaneously causes and is produced by deficient RSE provisions.

On International Women’s Day on March 8th, many gathered in solidarity with ROSA NI outside Belfast City Hall to demonstrate resistance against gender-based violence. Amongst the sea of placards, passionate pleas to “destroy the patriarchy, not the planet” and to “stop killing trans people”, student activist and representative for Ulster University’s Pro-Choice society cried out, “we don’t deserve better, we need better.” Dearbhail Mcnulty was one of the speakers and expressed in her powerful speech that gender-based violence rears its head in many forms. “When talking about gender violence, people immediately think of physical domestic abuse. As many of us already know, the reality is so much more. It is a lack of abortion services for women and pregnant people. It is a lack of free period products. We need proper education, not only in schools but also at universities, to reverse the damage that has already been done. These classes need to be mandatory.”

Dearbhail McNulty sharing her speech outside Belfast City Hall on International Women’s Day
Credit: Amanda Doherty

The heartfelt speech was used both to call the government, schools, police services, and healthcare system to action whilst holding them accountable for the current lack of provisions. Underscore Media talks with two Northern Irish women, both of whom echo Dearbhail’s concerns that women and young people are left “falling between the cracks”, and are collectively working towards the abolition of stigma surrounding conversations about women’s health. One way to bring it to an end, they speculate, is through fully inclusive and comprehensive RSE that addresses all social and psychological issues, from gender equality to consent and body autonomy.

“We don’t run in after someone has had a heart-attack and start teaching CPR on someone who’s dying, so it shouldn’t be done that way for RSE either.”

Sex educator for Common Youth, Sara Haller, discusses the ways in which the lack of fully-inclusive, comprehensive RSE in schools is dis-servicing women and young people. The purpose of it is not solely to curb unwanted pregnancies or raise awareness of STI’s, she explains, though that is definitely a part of it. It is well-being and mental health. It is body positivity. LGBTQ+ identities, feminism, boundaries and consent. She goes on: “It’s preparing people to be people. That’s why it is such a disservice. It’s such an important skill that it’s insane we’re not making it mandatory and helping our young people have their best chance at life, rather than leaving them to find it out on their own”.

In 2019, the Belfast Youth Forum published, in collaboration with Common Youth and Queens University, the Any Use report, which was a youth-led investigation into young people’s opinions on the RSE they received in school. The information that was and continues to be gathered is to ensure young people’s voices are included in RSE policy decisions moving forward. When young people were asked to describe their RSE in one word, negative word associations dominated the answers, the most recurring ones being “heteronormative,” “useless,” “biased,” and uninformative”. Only 10% of the respondents said the RSE they received was useful, while 77% said that the way forward is to receive RSE in an in-depth taught course, led by a fully qualified RSE educator.

Further, the statistics shone a light on the fact that despite the Department of Education providing guidance to primary and secondary level schools in Northern Ireland, schools are free to develop their own policy on how RSE is addressed within the curriculum. The implications of this, as quoted in the report, is that it “runs the risk of RSE varying greatly in quality and content, being irrelevant and not grounded in the reality of young people’s lived experiences.” Further, it risks the RSE that is being provided being influenced by the ethos and religion of the school. Therefore, it states, it leads to a heightened risk of the information that is provided being biased and non-factual. Sara explains that “it’s not regulated in the same way the exam topics are, so if you decide not to cover reproductive healthcare or LGBTQ because you don’t want to,  then you’re allowed to do that. It’s scary when you think about it, because it’s people’s identities on the line. Real life issues. The people who suffer under it the most are marginalised groups. Women and LGBTQ+. They’re the ones who need the information the most, and it’s being withheld from them”.

Belfast activists gather outside Belfast City Hall on International Women’s Day to call time on the ‘shadow’ pandemic Credit: Amanda Doherty

On the impact religion has on the RSE provided in schools, she explains that it should “absolutely be present. There’s no need to cull any kind of religious expression from RSE. The problem lies within the fact that it’s the only voice that’s being heard. There’s still a place for them. but it’s a place where they still need to be inclusive in the same way non-secular RSE providers need to be inclusive of religious identities. It’s a two way street, but it doesn’t quite feel like that at the minute“. When teaching young people about sex, Sara continues, history has shown that fear-tactics do not work. “If they did, teenage pregnancy and STI rates would be going down, not up. So, shifting to a more sex positive approach is essential. Research has shown people really do benefit from it; You can have all the facts on STIs in the world but still have a negative approach to sex, which leads to you having more risks. It’s about building up people’s perceptions of themselves, of their situations, agency and empowerment to make those decisions when they need to.”

To hear more of what Sara had to say on the matter, click below.

Abortion, periods and breaking the stigma

21st October, 2019, was a day of promise and celebration for countless activists and many women in Northern Ireland, following decades of campaigning for free, safe, legal, local abortions. Amy Merron, fervent socialist-feminist activist and chair of the Pro-choice society at Ulster University, explains why the need for campaigning continues to exist for reproductive healthcare rights following the decriminalisation of abortion in 2019.

“When people are still travelling, when people are still unsure of where to access abortion pills, whenever we don’t have surgical abortions here in the North, when people are still being targeted outside healthcare clinics, that means there’s still so much more we have to do. Ninety-five per cent of people who have had an abortion say that it was the right choice for them. It is still so stigmatised, which perpetuates this idea that we don’t know what we want to do with our bodies or how to make decisions for ourselves”. The first step towards change, she says, is “getting students educated. We need LGBT+ and abortion inclusive relationship and sex education now.”

Photo by Natracare on Unsplash

In January 2022, Minister of Health Robin Swann stated that the lack of period products is not a “health issue”, a fact with which many period-having people disagree. One of these people is Frankie McCrea, campaign manager for Queen’s Feminist Society and a tireless activist for Belfast-based campaign Homeless Period. She explains to Underscore Media why she joined the volunteer-led organisation three years ago. “I suffer from Endometriosis, so I’ve always had really heavy and painful periods. It was coming up to Christmas one year and I just remember thinking I could not cope – I could not survive – if I was in a homeless hostel or if I was living on the streets and was dealing with this because I was going through a pad every 15 minutes”. It is not a healthcare issue, insists Swann, yet many women and menstruating people experiencing period poverty resort to unhygienic, risky, temporary measures which in turn puts them at risk of infections would could potentially be life-threatening. The disregard for women’s health is a clear sign, McCrea insists, of gender-based violence. “You wouldn’t tell a diabetic to choose between going and paying their rent and getting their insulin. It’s not acceptable. It’s not just a health issue, it’s a human rights issue”.

See below for more information on Frankie’s story.

Further, she explains, period poverty is not just lacking access to period products, it is the stigma attached to them. If all young people, including boys, were educated on women’s health, then society would become more supportive of issues concerning it. Thus, an immediate narrative shift is required to remould social norms. By doing so, society could transform into one of empathy; where the streets are safe, reproductive healthcare is accessible, period poverty is recognised as a healthcare issue, and where, ultimately, women’s rights are fought for by everyone.

Information and updates from each organisation and campaign mentioned can be found below:


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