The Development of Rights-Based Sexuality Education Curriculum Using Intersectionality as a Policy Analysis Framework and Pedagogical Tool

By Lamisse Hamouda

Lamisse attended the 2016 UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York. 


Despite its wide-ranging impact across the lifetime of most adults, sexuality education in Australian schools remains stagnated within fear-based, health-focused objectives. While goals primed at reducing sexual partners, rates of sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy have unquestionable merit, there is an additional need to address a range of contextual realities that impact sexuality and sexual choices. It is imperative to extend upon sexuality education through comprehensive programs which provide a legitimate alternative to abstinence-only programs and to develop sexuality-education programs that address the range of socially-constructed phenomena and cultural informed impacts on young people navigating their sexuality. 

Rights-based sexuality programs are moving in the direction of addressing indivisible contextual factors by recognising that human rights, gender equality and the improvement of sexual health are all related to quality sexuality education for young people. To address the complexities of multicultural and multiracial communities, intersectionality has been gaining traction and emerging as a theoretical and operational tool for policy, education and health and social services. Drawing on the Intersectionality Policy-Based Analysis developed by researchers in Canada, intersectional rights-based sexuality education is offered as a possible way forward for sexuality education.


1.     Application of the Intersectionality Policy-Based Analysis (IPBA) framework through utilising the guiding principles and twelve sets of questions within health and education policy areas to re-shape the sexuality education curriculum in Australia;

2.     A Federal Government analysis of comprehensive sexuality education policy and curriculum using the Intersectionality Policy-Based framework;

3.     An analysis of comprehensive sexuality education policy and curriculum which draws on the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) “It’s All One” Guidelines, to provide recommendations for moving toward rights-based sexuality education programs;

4.     A university curriculum review of sexual education training guidelines as part of the tertiary-level education degree requirement for secondary teachers;

5.     Development of a consultative process at all stages across the various affected communities, with a particular focus on the inclusion of young people; and

6.     Disaggregation of data collected on sexual health according to the IPBA framework.


This research paper sets out to explore the history of sexual and reproductive rights within a human rights framework, and the applicability of developing a rights-based sexuality education program built on foundational principle of intersectionality. Intersectional theory emphasises the structural intersection of social categories, including gender, ethnicity and class, which lies behind inequality, along with the acknowledgement of women’s life experiences, voices and knowledge.[1] This paper will also explore the applicability of intersectionality as a policy analysis framework and pedagogical tool in the health and education policy areas of sexuality education and recommend the Intersectionality Policy-Based Analysis framework[2] for future health and education policy analysis across state and federal government in Australia.

In the realm of sexuality education, curriculum development needs to encompass an understanding that ‘sexuality is largely a socially constructed phenomenon and culturally informed experience’.[3] Sexuality education requires examining the ‘dynamics of difference and sameness… (by) facilitating consideration of gender, race, and other axes of power’.[4] In other words, as offered by researcher and academic Elliot (2014), ‘sex education should focus their lessons on social justice, unpacking how social inequalities are reproduced, and how to interrupt them’.[5]

In their compelling research, Berglas et al. (2014) present the case for involving youth in the development of rights-based sexuality education. From a policy perspective, ‘it is critical to include youth perspectives in these new areas of interest to ensure that their voices become part of the process’.[6] A rights-based approach to sexuality education is ‘guided by the belief that efforts to advance human rights, promote gender equality, and improve sexual health must be integrated in order to fully meet the needs of youth’. Furthermore, recognising that policy affect and impact various communities in a multitude of ways addresses critical flaws with one-size-fits-all policy approaches.  

Sexual and Reproductive Rights: Contextualising the history and importance of Sexuality Education

Sexual and reproductive rights increasingly entered into the consciousness of human rights discussions through the two United Nations ‘Decades for Women’.[7] Both the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development Programme for Action (ICPD PoA), and the Beijing Platform for Action (‘Beijing Declaration’) from the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, were marked as defining outcomes of feminist lobbying and women’s organisations.[8] The power of non-binding documents such as the Beijing Declaration and ICPD PoA lies in their capacity to affect discursive change within government and the judiciary. For example, ‘the paradigm shift at the ICPD made it possible to begin asking entirely new questions that were not focused on population control, but on the guaranteeing of rights and the meeting of needs’.[9] However, critics of these documents claim that they are ‘at best noble words, with little practical follow-up affecting real women’s lives’.[10] Identified gaps in the documents include apparent failures ‘to provide access to safe, legal abortion… the very limited way sexual rights were defined… and the problem of resources’.[11] Evidently, the outcomes are ‘not adequate to ensure universal access to quality, comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, as envisioned’.[12]

Winning the struggle over discourse through conference agreements and resolutions is only the first step[13] into what has been referred to as ‘the battlefield of knowledge’.[14] Arguably, these ‘noble words’ are the very foundation upon which internationally recognised discussions on sexual and reproductive health rights are based. With each conference, meeting, and commission, the potential for discursive change grows and the agenda of sexual and reproductive rights is progressed further. While incrementalism is both a curse and blessing, building lasting change in the move towards sexual and reproductive rights involves a multitude of battles in the field of knowledge and an equal multitude of incremental – and monumental – successes.

The progress of sexual and reproductive health rights was impeded when sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) were left out of the formation of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The failure to include SRHR ignored their crucial role in the attainment of health, economic and gender empowerment, revealing a fundamental neglect of the principle of indivisibility. Despite these rights relating ‘directly or indirectly to all eight MDGs…political opponents of these rights and services helped to sideline these well-established links during the MDGs’ initial years’.[15] This sidelining of SRHR impacted the agenda and funding priorities of governments and donors in subsequent years with a shift in focus away from these issues. Although technically non-binding, the agreements and resolutions produced by the UN and other international bodies heavily influence the policy and agenda of nation-states, which ‘conform their practices, or at least their discourse, to the norms expressed…some of what is agreed upon at global conferences will become rules of ‘customary international law’.[16] Evidently, international agreements determine the way in which donors and governments structure their priorities, policies and agendas. Drawing resources away from SRHR has the potential to undermine the human rights framework and negatively impact other related development goals.

Fortunately, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which follow and expand on the MDGs, incorporate sexual and reproductive health rights. The SDGs, a new universal sets of goals, indicators and targets to be used by governments to shape their agendas and policies, were launched in 2015 at the expiry of the MDGs. Goals 3, 4 and 5 pertain in some way to the issue of SRHR, however elaboration and further work is still due. For example, Goal 3 is to ‘ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages’ has a range of targets which focus on explicit health goals such the reduction of maternal and neonatal mortality, communicable and non-communicable diseases and state capacity building. However, there is a nod to SRHR bizarrely squeezed in next to the target for the reduction of road traffic accidents, incidents and deaths, and it states,

…by 2030, ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care services, including for family planning, information and education, and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programmes.[17]

Not prioritising SRHR is concerning given its broad connection to development issues, from education to health outcomes, and it remains to be seen later this year what indicators to measure progress on these targets will be determined at the inter-governmental level.

The most distinct gender-related of the SDGs is Goal 5, which is ‘achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’. This goal aims to end all forms of discrimination, violence and harmful practices against women and girls; recognise unpaid labour and car; ensure participation and leadership, and create economic and legislative reform. The inextricable links between women’s rights and development are most evident here. Furthermore, Goal 5 explicitly aims to

…ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights as agreed in accordance with the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the Beijing Platform for Action.[18]

Upholding the ICPD and Beijing Platform for Action is commendable. However, it reveals that the progress of SRHR is still at risk of being trapped in the 90s, as it has been more than two decades since the two documents were agreed upon and released. While these are foundational documents, rather than relying on them as the sole sources, it is time review and build upon the ICPD and Beijing Declaration to further progress the agenda of sexual and reproductive health rights.

While SRHR are firmly established within the SDG agenda, a concern exists that ‘human rights advocates have not had a full conversation about how to work comprehensively, and coherently, across culturally different sexual practices, identities, meanings, and power structures’.[19] Efforts in upholding the principle of indivisibility through cross-sectorial work and consultation need to be strengthened if they are to be effective. Furthermore, this work needs to make visible the structures that regulate culturally different sexual practices, identities, meanings, and their corresponding relationships to categories of difference and power. 

Intersectionality & Rights-Based Sexuality Education

The pedagogy of a rights-based sexuality education program informed by intersectionality should avoid ascribing an ontological condition of agency, but rather engage with the multiple ways in which agency and subject positions arise in sexual and reproductive health rights and responsibilities. It is important for the sake of this argument to consider ‘responsibilities’ as part of the discussion, as rights cannot be fully exercised without a resultant exploration into responsibilities, particularly when it comes to rights-based sexuality education programs. The rights-based component of sexuality education can reinforce an adherence to the human rights principle of indivisibility through a pedagogical use of intersectionality. The intention is to enhance the tailoring of programs and training of educators to comprehensively understand and teach critical thinking skills to young people, and equip them with tools to understand and navigate their own specific contexts and their ability to exercise their sexual and reproductive health rights and responsibilities.

There are currently resources in this field which serve to clarify the goals and vision for comprehensive sexual-education programs that best equip our young people, regardless of ethnicity, religion or cultural background. Here, Berglas et al. (2014) outline key parts of the vision that underpins rights-based sexuality education:[20]

1.     Youth as holders of inalienable sexual rights, including the right to comprehensive, medically accurate, no-discriminatory information about their sexuality and sexual health;

2.     Emphasis on health promotion, empowerment, agency and citizenship;

3.     Engage youth in critical thinking about the complex contextual issues that influence their sexuality and relationships, including gender norms, power dynamics, cultural norms, individual rights and responsibilities in relationships, sexual diversity, violence and sexual oppression;

4.     Hold youth as agents of change, both in their relationships and in their communities; and

5.     Incorporate youth knowledge, experiences, perspectives, and voices in to the education process.

Together these principles form a solid basis for the development of policy in this area, and offer a holistic perspective of the most critical aspects of the issue. Another valuable resource to guide policy development in the space of a rights-based sexuality-education framework is the ‘It’s All One’[21] resource kit and guidelines released by the UN Population Council. Highly comprehensive, this guide can be utilised as the founding document to draw in order to tailor targeted rights-based sexuality education programs situated within an intersectional understanding of gender and power relations.

One of the primary barriers to re-shaping this policy is the inflexibility of the power and resource structures which shape current sexual-education policy. For example, Miller (2000) remarks that ‘the contemporary struggle for sexual rights seeks to expose concepts of ‘power and resources: power to make informed choices about one’s own…sexual activity and resources to carry out such decision safely and effectively’.[22]  The ability to access power and resources is often situated within the sexual hierarchy, however, there is an effort to locate the sexual hierarchy within an intersectional framework by recognising that,

 …like a class system, a sexual hierarchy metes out rewards and deprivations, with material as well as symbolic resources. In addition, a sexual hierarchy intersects with other social hierarchies and inequalities, for example, class, caste, race or gender because “different forms of stigma reinforce each other.[23]

Evidently, these numerous sites of stigma are mutually reinforcing, and prompt an exploration into the ‘multiple and intersecting systems of power that largely dictate our life chances’.[24] This recognition of difference is often not met with an equal acknowledgement of power relations. These unique meanings and complex experiences within and between groups in society, affected by various social identities, are further compounded by what Collins refers to as the ‘matrix of domination’.[25]

Bringing this concept back into the classroom, a key study in the realm of sexual education by Elliott (2014) reveals how ‘sex educators rely on and reproduce gender, race, class, and sexual inequalities in their lessons on personal responsibility’.[26] The failure to explore to multiplicity of ways in which access to power and resources are connected to difference deliberately and ignorantly assumes an equal playing field. This de-politicisation of difference presumes a linear narrative of development, in which these supposedly ‘unfettered individuals’[27] are to become ‘good sexual citizen[s]…self-sufficient, self-regulating and consequence-bearing’.[28] Such an intersectional approach becomes part of understanding the ‘sexual culture’ as put forward by Parker et. al (1991), in which the sexual culture is defined as ‘the systems of meaning, of knowledge, of beliefs, and practices that structure sexuality in different social contexts’.[29] The failure to recognise difference and its relation to the access of power and resources has a double consequence; it not only fails to recognise risk in an individual’s life, it also fails to equip individuals to mobilise their own power and resources.  As such, an intersectional approach, through a ‘focus [on] specific contexts and articulated social formations from which different forms of agency and subject positions arise’,[30] requires moving beyond ‘mechanisms of exclusion which pit cultural group rights against gender equality and sexual freedoms’.[31]

Most pertinent within the rights-based approach to sexuality is the importance placed on teaching critical thinking skills to young people which adequately address complex contextual issues that influence decision-making pertaining to sexuality, intimacy, relationships and self. Furthermore, recognising that young people (and people in general) do not exist in a vacuum and are arranged, influenced, and discursively produced through a range of factors, provides an opportunity for critical engagement of these influencing factors. Ending the dichotomy of pitting of cultural rights against gender equality and sexual freedom has been a consistent discursive practise. This is one in which has particularly impacted the Muslim community, especially through the portrayal of the Muslim woman ‘continually seen as ‘victimised, oppressed, and waiting to be rescued’.[32] In a worrying trend, ‘the rights of women are now pitted against sociocultural/traditional/religious rights’ and SRHR is ‘clouded by a discourse of cultural and religious relativism’.[33]

A discourse of intersectionality within the realm of sexuality education could function to clear this cloud and dismantle unhelpful binaries. Rather than upholding cultural and religious relativism or negating it altogether, an intersectional epistemology would demonstrate how these factors operate in the construction of subject formations and agency. Culture and religion have been ‘a powerful rubric for organising knowledge and demarcating understandings about certain appropriate or inappropriate attitudes and behaviours toward sexuality’.[34] To completely dismantle these structures risks disempowering the individual and weakening the positive potential of culture and religion in their lives.

The concept of ‘cultural scripts’ has been ground-breaking in research on sexuality education for Muslim youth. Cultural scripts can be described as “culturally-determined reflexes” that serve in place, and often in opposition to, deliberate and conscious decision-making.[35] One leading researcher reveals how teachers she interviewed were concerned for their students given that

…these cultural scripts suggest little or no distinction between “cultural” or “religious”, suggesting that, to balance the twin forces of cultural and religious inflects on sexuality… was to create in their pedagogy intellectual conversations exploring these folkloric and mythical sexual expressions.[36]

Intersectionality could also function as an experimental tool to sift through the way in which cultural scripts can uphold inequality, as well as how they can act as positive forces on individual agency.

Intersectionality Policy-Based Analysis

The Intersectionality Policy-Based Analysis (IPBA) framework, which was developed by Canadian researchers, intends to ‘enhance the decision-making capacity of a wide range of stakeholders, including analysts working in the health and health-related policy sectors, community organisations and researchers’.[37] The IBPA provides a new and effective method for understanding the various implications of equity-based policy, and ‘for promoting equity-based improvements and social justice within an increasingly diverse and complex population base’.[38] It offers two components: guiding principles, and twelve over-arching questions, and a range of sub-questions, which work to guide an intersectionality-informed analysis. Arguably, ‘there is no area of policy that would not benefit from the application of intersectionality’.[39] In the uniquely complex multicultural and multiracial demography of the Australian population, applying intersectionality to the policy cycle, and policy analysis, would be to recognise that addressing complex inequalities with a one-size fits all approach does not work, because ‘policy is not neutral, as it is not experienced in the same way by all populations, and…important differences and concomitant needs have to be taken into account’.[40] Effective policies and programs will recognise and address the interdependence which exists between various social factors and locations.

There are challenges in the operationalisation of intersectionality, and transferring theory into a comprehensive methodological practice remains an ongoing issue of concern.[41] The IPBA assists with this to some extent, however it may be pertinent to consider further research into the operationalisation of intersectionality within public policy before applying it to a public policy framework within Australia.


Overall, in both the policy and education arena, the relevance of intersectionality in multicultural societies cannot be ignored. Policy does not play out equally across all communities, and the application of methodologies such as those described in this paper can reveal such inequities, enabling government and policy-makers to develop more relevant and effective policies.

Sexuality education is underpinned by a history of the struggles for sexual and reproductive-rights in the international arena, and is a crucial area of the establishment of gender equality. Valuing the potential of sexuality education is a key aspect in furthering the recognition of and adherence to the human rights agenda.

In the realm of sexuality education curriculum and policy, it is imperative that we move forward to better answer the complex social realities and experiences of young people in diverse communities. It is not simply a question of sex and sexual health, but rather viewing sexuality as a crucial component of overall identity-formation, an area of rights and responsibilities, and a space that reveals a range of protective and risk factors in the lives of young people. To answer these complexities means moving beyond comprehensive sexuality education into a rights-based sexuality education programs underpinned by intersectionality.

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