Voices of Change

Harriet Birungi: A Perspective on Sex Education in Schools

Photo credit: Flynn Warren

Harriet Birungi is the country director of the Population Council's Nairobi office, a senior associate with the Council’s Reproductive Health program, and a medical anthropologist. 

I am Harriet Birungi, and I am proud to be an advocate for family planning. In Kenya and in other countries across the world, I’ve seen what happens when young girls, boys, and women don’t have access to the education and resources they need to understand the changes that happen to their bodies, know the facts about unintended pregnancy, and be informed about their contraceptive options. It is my mission to uncover and address the most pressing needs of adolescents and women nationwide to help them achieve their dreams and life goals.

We must strengthen our educational system to ensure young people have access to information about their bodies and pregnancy, when and where they need it. While the educational system is improving, there are many needs that have not been met —needs that directly and indirectly affect the state of our economy and community. In the school system, young girls and boys are not taught about the changes that happen to their bodies when they go through puberty; they do not know when or how they can become pregnant, how contraception works most effectively, and where they can get accurate, unbiased information about contraception. This is a sad truth that we all face each and every day, but it can be addressed with the collective support from all those who share this passion in helping address unmet needs in the way we deliver information about sexual and reproductive health.

We must face the realities and consequences of unintended pregnancies and the impact on our communities and health systems. Approximately 40 percent of pregnancies in the developing world are unintended. Of these, nearly half of women resort to an abortion, of which more than 50 percent are unsafe due to poor-quality healthcare or unskilled providers. These factors influenced the creation of the Population Council’s STEP UP program (Strengthening Evidence for Programming on Unintended Pregnancy). The program seeks to understand how health systems can be improved to reduce unmet needs for quality family planning services. It will also identify innovations in technology, delivery, and financing that can help expand access to these services, especially among poor and vulnerable women. 

As a community, it’s time we embrace the challenges we face that prevent young people from feeling empowered and achieving their full potential. Here in Nairobi and with the collaboration of my team, I focus on conducting research that evaluates the intersection between medicines and sexuality, particularly with both areas playing such an influential role in people’s lives and acting as the focus of impactful government regulations. When young people know more about their bodies and can speak openly with their teachers, parents, and other people they trust, they can approach the discourse of sexuality in a trusted way that eliminates stigma and promotes better health-seeking behaviors.

It takes a village to make significant change happen, and this is a task that cannot be accomplished alone. I hope you will join me in advocating for increased awareness of sexual and reproductive health needs, including the urgent need for improved education among young people worldwide.