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Illustration of a classroom with a teacher pointing at chalkboard which has male and female symbols, children in the foreground all have raised hands.

Hot Topic

Breaking the ice on sex education in Armenia’s public schools


While conducting research on sex education in Armenia, it became clear that many Armenians define sex education as teaching their children how to have sex. However, Armenia, as a former member nation of the Soviet Union, had long followed a regime that propagated communalism over individualism, and in doing so repressed both sex and sexuality. As a result, by misunderstanding what sex education really is, many immediately oppose the idea and the term itself. A vast majority of the Armenian population is yet to understand that comprehensive sex education covers a broad range of topics related to human development, relationships, personal hygiene, sexual behavior and sexual health in the context of avoiding sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s) and unwanted pregnancies.

In fact, according to research published by UNESCO, “Governments should take appropriate steps to help avoid abortion, which in no case should be promoted as a method of family planning, as has been prevalent in Armenia.”

The same research also refers to experts who suggest that integrating sex-education into school curriculum would “prevent and reduce gender-based and intimate partner violence and discrimination, while increasing gender equitable attitudes, self-efficacy, and confidence, and build stronger and healthier relationships.”

While this may make sense in other societies, it brings us to the question at hand: What does sex education look like in a country and patriarchal society, in which women are expected to remain virgins until they are married?

Teaching your children the proper names of their genitals and explaining to them that it is a private body part at a very young age will help protect them from sexual abuse.

The topic is not one that Armenians can easily discuss over a cup of coffee, and in fact is rarely discussed between parents and their children. With many parents not having the tools or vocabulary to provide comprehensive sex education, it is up to the state and schools to ensure that children will receive this education and transform into healthy adults.

According to the Ministry of Education in Armenia, sex education as a subject is not taught at Armenian schools. However, as far back as 2008 public schools added a subject entitled “Healthy Lifestyle” to the curriculum of junior high students and in 2010 to high school students. The subject is taught by physical education teachers, and topics include reproductive health, puberty, healthy sexual relationships, sexually transmitted diseases and how to prevent them, along with other content, such as smoking, drug and alcohol use, etc.

Elvira Meliksetyan, a psychologist who facilitates discussions on sex education in the rural regions of Armenia, believes that while the subject and curriculum sound good on paper, the knowledge it is meant to impart is not always successfully delivered by the teachers to their students, and the reasons for this vary. Meliksetyan says that most teachers do not feel comfortable discussing topics pertaining to sex and sexuality. Often the students are asked to read sex-related chapters in textbooks independently without any ensuing in-class discussions.

In lieu of formal sex education, students are bound to resort to other sources, such as their peers and the Internet, both of which are breeding grounds for misinformation and undesirable consequences.

At present, there are no reliable statistics on the recent number of teenage pregnancies, teen school dropouts due to pregnancy, child sexual abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases in Armenia, mainly because it is socially taboo to discuss these topics. Instead, many would rather not report such cases, even though these are not issues to which Armenia is immune. And while many studies show that proper sexual education at a young age will prevent such issues from occurring, Armenian society at large is still slow to accept this.

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HIV Infection in Armenia from 1988 to 2019
HIV Infection in Armenia from 1988 to 2019
Source: National Center for AIDS Prevention of the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Armenia

 

In 2010, Armenia became one of the 47 Council of Europe member states that signed the Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse, known as the Lanzarote Convention, which requires signatories to take specific measures to prevent child sexual abuse and punish perpetrators. However, it was not until May of 2020 that the Convention was ratified by the parliament of Armenia. The recent passage verifies that the current government, which is more vocally progressive than the former regime, understands the importance of sex education and the role of the government to provide resources and education to its youth.

However, the Convention did not come without its share of controversy. For example, Article 6 of the Convention states that “Each Party shall take the necessary legislative or other measures to ensure that children, during primary and secondary education, receive information on the risks of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, as well as on the means to protect themselves, adapted to their evolving capacity.”

The article drew conservancy in the country and protests were held in front of the parliament building. Various religious and conservative organizations debated the issue on TV and social media, largely misinterpreting the Convention and especially Article 6, claiming that it requires teaching elementary school students about sexuality, something deemed as culturally unacceptable. One psychologist announced that children in elementary schools are simply unable to comprehend any information about sex or sexuality. However, young parents who are more educated and open-minded concur that their toddlers are exploring their bodies and asking questions at a very young age, and proper education both at school and home will benefit them. Arevik Baghdasaryan, who is a mother of two boys and a psychologist by training, believes that if implemented properly Article 6 of the Convention will actually help prevent child sexual abuse. “Some believe that child sexual abuse doesn’t happen in Armenia. Yet we hear stories of such cases both from Yerevan and the regions. However, parents often don’t report the incidents and don’t press charges because they are ashamed and afraid to make it public. Perpetrators remain unpunished and the victims do not receive any help or counseling, which sometimes have tragic consequences, such as the victim committing suicide,” she explains.

Baghdasaryan believes that the government needs to educate not only the children, but also the parents. “While as a psychologist I know that teaching your children the proper names of their genitals and explaining to them that it is a private body part at a very young age will help protect them from sexual abuse, many Armenian parents continue using made up names while talking about these body parts,” Baghdasaryan says. However, when some organizations and individuals try to provide education and resources, they are met with sharp criticism. In 2019, during a book presentation entitled “My Body is Personal”—geared toward children ages three to six and their parents to identify and prevent inappropriate sexual contact—protesters threw eggs at the presenter and organizers of the event. According to Georgia Today even Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan reacted to the incident, stating that he read the book and didn’t find it inappropriate at all. “We need to provide children with sex education. We are no longer in middle ages,” Pashinyan was quoted.

In lieu of formal sex education, students are bound to resort to other sources, such as their peers and the Internet, both of which are breeding grounds for misinformation and undesirable consequences.

During a press conference in May, Pashinyan also referred to the recent ratification of the Lanzarote Convention and explained that the goal is to educate children and parents and help them identify inappropriate behavior and prevent abuse.

Supporting this assertion is data from a 2017 report from The Investigative Committee of the Republic of Armenia stating that in 2017, 68% of criminal cases of sexual violence involved victims aged 5-17.

Armenia has a long and arduous journey ahead, but experts agree that education is the most powerful tool in preventing abuse and promoting healthy sex life.

According to the National Center for AIDS Prevention of the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Armenia (NCAP) from 1988 through 2019, there were 3,785 cases of HIV infection in Armenia, 448 registered in 2019 alone. Of that total 2,626 were male (69%) 1,159 female (31%) and 62 (1.7%) children.

Aram Hakobyan, the president of the Armenian Association of Sexology agrees. “Access to sex education and sexology services is a major issue,” he says. His organization focuses on promoting, maintaining and improving sexual, reproductive and mental health, as well as providing educational resources to youth on family planning, healthy sexual behaviors and sexually transmitted diseases among other topics. “Naturally, the residents of the Capital are the ones who take advantage of our services more, because sexual health information is more accessible to them. The residents of the regions suffer significantly in this regard. It is unfortunate but many young people do not follow safe sex practices and do not use condoms,” explains Hakobyan. As a result, especially in the rural regions, women often use abortion as contraception. Due to lack of education they unnecessarily put their health and life at risk.

This is precisely why Elvira Meliksetyan works in these regions. Through small group seminars and discussions, she creates safe spaces for women of all ages to gather and discuss issues and get answers to their questions regarding their sexuality, sex life and sexual health. There is still much work to be done in Armenia when it comes to sex education, but Meliksetyan remains hopeful. “Education is the most important and powerful tool you can provide. It will not only help prevent gender-based violence and abuse but will hopefully reduce discrimination based on sexual orientation,” she said. However, while she works primarily with women, she added that her male counterparts should also facilitate similar educational gatherings for Armenian boys. “Males are left out; they also need to be educated.”

Banner illustration by Peter Ryan

Originally published in the March 2021 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. end character

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