Niger drops sex education from syllabus at Muslim leaders' urging

Thursday, 30 October 2014 13:26 GMT

A girl carries her brother on her back on a street in Agadez, northern Niger Picture September 11, 2011. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

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Sex education had aimed at helping reduce Nigerien girls' high level of forced marriage, early pregnancy

NIAMEY/DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Niger government has withdrawn a course on sexual and reproductive health from the school syllabus after Islamic organisations said the teachings were contrary to the country's values.

The predominantly Muslim nation of 17 million has the highest fertility rate in the world, an average of around eight children per woman. Some 30 percent of girls are married by the age of 15, and 77 percent by 18, according to the latest government health surveys.

The pilot module, "Training on sexual and reproductive health of adolescents and young people for responsible behaviour," was introduced in September, but provoked an outcry from Muslim groups that felt it advocated a culture of sexual freedom in the country's schools.

The module aimed to teach 11- to 18-year-olds that each person can decide if, when and with whom they want a romantic relationship or marriage. It also supported same-sex relationships.

The module encouraged secondary school pupils to learn how to kiss, masturbate, touch the breasts and genitals through clothes as well as undress each other and stroke each other's body without clothes.

The Ministry of Secondary Education said on Wednesday that it recognized that the module, developed by United Nations consultants for secondary school teachers, did not reflect the socio-cultural realities or customs of the country.

"As a result, and on behalf of the government, the Minister of Secondary Education informs the nation that the said module has already been removed," it said in a statement.

Monique Clesca, country representative for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), said the course was part of a wider rights-based programme on reducing forced marriage and teenage pregnancies in Niger and keeping girls in school.

"Some 73 percent of adolescent girls are illiterate in Niger, because they are taken out of school due to forced marriages or early pregnancies. Education is the pathway to a girl having a better trajectory in life," Clesca told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Though around 40 teachers and advisers from the ministry had validated the module, some elements need to be reviewed to make it more culturally sensitive and universally accepted in Niger for when we scale up the pilot next year," she said.

A spokesman from an influential group of Islamic associations in the Sahel region country welcomed the government's decision.

"We thank the authorities for taking this decision to withdraw. We have said repeatedly that this is wrong and that the good running of education must involve Muslims," said preacher Sambo Ousman.

"The Islamic associations do not in any way accept the circulation of this document, let alone teaching in Nigerien schools, among other reasons (because of) the total lack of morality by undermining our values without exception, the confusion between freedom and licentiousness and the legalization of fornication and homosexuality," the groups said in a statement.

Lobbying by the associations has in the past resulted in the removal of the draft family code because it gave women equality in inheritance, raised the legal age of marriage for girls to 18 and provided for family planning measures. (Reporting by Abdoulaye Massalaki in Niamey and Misha Hussain in Dakar, editing by Tim Pearce)

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