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Participants in Latin American and Caribbean Regional Consultations Seek to Advance Sexuality Education and Ensure Safe Schools

During the first week of September 2009, experts from throughout the Americas convened in Mexico City to map out strategies for advancing sexuality education and ensuring safe schools in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). The participants came together from academia, government, UN agencies, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations to evaluate technical tools regarding sexuality education, develop recommendations for their use in the LAC region, share best-practices, and identify advocacy opportunities to promote sexuality education. They also examined the question of safe and inclusive schools in the region, tackling how to create discrimination- and violence-free environments, paying particular attention to combating homophobia.

The first meeting, the “Regional Technical Consultation on the International Guidelines on Sexuality Education and Other Key Documents” was convened on September 1-2, 2009 by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Regional Education Office, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), World Association for Sexual Health (WAS), and Mexico’s National Center for the Prevention and Control of HIV/AIDS.  This meeting offered follow-up on implementing the tenets of the Mexico City Ministerial Declaration, a groundbreaking agreement made in August 2008 by nearly all of the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to assess current infrastructure needs, strengthen educational institutions, and ensure access to resources to support the widespread implementation of sexuality education and ensure access to sexual and reproductive health services for youth and adolescents in the region. 
Participants reviewed a number of technical documents outlining the evidence base for sexuality education, as well as age-appropriate schematics on the specific themes therein ,   Central to these discussions was UNESCO’s International Guidelines for Sexuality Education, a document co-authored by well-known adolescent and sexual health researcher, Dr. Douglas Kirby, from ETR Associates, and former Director for International Education with the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS), Nannette Ecker. Along with other tools, the guidelines offer a practical translation of the core principles behind evidence-based approaches.
While the development of the Mexico City Ministerial Declaration, signed by 26 Ministers of Education and 30 Ministers of Health from throughout the Latin American and Caribbean Region, signaled strong political will at the highest levels, work remains to hold governments accountable for implementing these agreements. Therefore, the second day of the consultation focused on advocacy and how civil society can be involved in the process.
“Access to evidence-based and age-appropriate sexuality education is one of the strongest tools we have to support the health of young people, helping them to build critical decision-making skills, to understand relationships and human development, and to lead safe, healthy lives. Ensuring that this promise reaches each individual is a multilayered effort requiring the full engagement of civil society working alongside partners in government and international agencies,” remarked vice president for public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), William Smith.
The second meeting, “Safe and Inclusive School Environments for the Prevention of HIV/STIs, Violence and Mental Health Problems,” on September 3-4, 2009, was sponsored by the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO). PAHO convened experts in the areas of sexual health and comprehensive sexuality education, educators, advocates, and researchers with the goal of identifying best practices and strengthening regional networks to promote inclusivity of all individuals, with particular attention paid to combating the devastating effects of homophobia. Participants shared best practices for reducing school violence and the latest data regarding its impact on mental health, physical well-being, and educational outcomes.  The U.S.-based Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) shared the tools they have developed for educators and students and the strategies they use to help support school communities to organize safe spaces. Out of this consultation came a strengthened resolve to bring about inclusivity, respect, solidarity, equality and non-discrimination in school environments.
The fruits of these discussions will unfold in the coming year as participants put into play the strategies and action plans for ensuring access to comprehensive sexuality education and safe, inclusive school environments throughout the Latin American and Caribbean Region.