“Why Don’t Men Menstruate?” Sexual Health Education as a Human Right

As Global Health Corps fellows, we believe health is a human right. Coming into GHC, I certainly believed this, but also felt as though calling something a “human right” has become a “sexy” buzzword trend. Sometimes the word seems so quotidian that almost everything is becoming valued as a human right. I share an office, for example, with an organization that believes housing for people living with HIV/AIDS is a human right. Having worked for four years in a Baltimore City HIV/AIDS clinic, I saw firsthand how adequate housing provided a sense of stability that could allow one to focus on his or her long term health when not faced with the pressing question of where to live for that day. Housing as a human right? You bet. More recently, while researching the topic of women in technology for a presentation I made recently, I discovered a 2011 report from the UN Special Rapporteur that asserted access to the Internet is a human right. In a world in which the internet is needed to gain and perform a high number of jobs, lack of Internet access is a detrimental economic burden. Furthermore, we’ve seen how social media has allowed people to have a voice in democratic processes and move forward human rights agendas. Be it housing, Internet or healthcare, the demand for each of these to be treated as a human right would greatly contribute to equity and empowerment.

As I’m overcoming cynicism, there’s one other human right I’ve come to purport: sexual education as a human right. I’m currently spending my fellowship at The Grassroot Project in Washington, D.C. which is a nonprofit that trains DC college athletes to become HIV educators in DC middle schools using games and sports. One of my favorite responsibilities as a Program Manager is to conduct site visits at each of our programs. Occasionally, I also fill in for our student athletes in our programs when needed. During these visits, I was able to build a strong relationship with one of our partner schools and specifically one of the teachers whose class participated in The Grassroot Project. In her classroom, I was struck by a chalkboard filled with two columns: “What we know” and “What we want to know.” The class was beginning their sexual health unit and the teacher chose to start the unit with open conversation. On the know column, there were facts such as “women have ovaries” and “male voices lower during puberty.” On the want-to-know column, there were questions such as, “What is a wet dream?” and “Why don’t men menstruate?” I was impressed by these unabashed questions and more importantly, by the safe and trustworthy atmosphere the teacher created.

I had to learn many sexual health lessons by asking friends, as we received very basic information in my middle school health classes. My experience is receiving limited sexual education in school is far too common, but I was fortunate enough to have many outlets to turn to for information: the Internet, my parents, friends, higher education at the university level. But what about the girls and boys who do not have safe places to discuss sexual and reproductive health? Whose friends know as little as they do about sexual health? Whose cultures or families may discourage the discussion of anything related to sexual health?

Is it time to use a rights-based approach to sexual and reproductive health education? The International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) defines a rights-based approach to comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) as “to equip young people with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values they need to determine and enjoy their sexuality — physically and emotionally, individually and in relationships.” Is it time to use innovative outlets such as girls sports programs to teach women and girls about CSE through models like Girl Determined or Moving the Goalpost? If youth were taught about their bodies, sexual health, reproduction, and how to have safer sex, would we see ripple effects resulting in reduced incidence of HIV, unwanted pregnancy or maternal mortality?

Cynicism dismantled, I am ready to promote access to sexual health education as a human right. As we move forward into the Sustainable Development Goals, sexual health is on the global radar. I see the movement for health equity growing, and am optimistic that we can expand our view of health to include education and discussion around more sensitive topics such as mental and sexual health. As advocates for social justice, we will continue to “bend the arc toward justice,” as Dr. King once said, embracing the arc in its many forms- and the arc I’m most excited to bend is the arc of access to sexual and reproductive health and human right for all.

Melissa Otterbein was a 2014–2015 Global Health Corps fellow at The Grassroot Project in the U.S. All GHC fellows, partners and supporters are united in a common belief: health is a human right. There is a role for everyone in the movement for health equity. Join the movement today.

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