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REGARDLESS of one's ethnicity, religious beliefs, political affiliation or the section of town you grew up in, there is an extremely high likelihood that you went to school - particularly now that most governments have moved towards free education in the Pacific.

Learning family life

For most of us, family life education was incorporated into other subjects in primary schools before it was introduced as a stand-alone subject, in most high schools.

Generally-speaking however, family life education focuses on the big picture of this basic unit of humanity: the family and we are not restricted to a definition of what "the family" should constitute. Family life education ideally delves into how this unit can be and remain healthy and functional, despite different perspectives and relations of its members. Characteristic to family life education is its primarily preventative approach.

For the family to be a healthy, functioning unit, members will need strong communication skills, basic knowledge of typical human development, good decision-making skills and positive self-esteem and family life education aims to foster these fundamentals.

Another reason why family life education is critical now more than ever is the undeniable fact that adolescents are beginning to be increasingly exposed to pornography via the internet or mobile telephones, not to mention the increasing number of sexual abuse reported against adolescent girls and children.

For the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the issue of age-appropriate and culturally appropriate gender-sensitive family life education (FLE) or comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) is fundamental because of its implication for the wellbeing of our populace. If skills and knowledge about the dynamics of family are inculcated early in life, they inform decision-making processes that enhance rather than impoverish our lives; this is eventually reflected at the community and national level.

The State of World Population report 2012 By Choice, Not by Chance reports that globally, birth rates are more than four times as high among uneducated adolescent girls between the ages of 15 to 19, as among girls who have at least secondary schooling. Births by the above age group have increased by 7 per cent in the past decade while births by girls with secondary (or further) schooling have declined by 14 per cent.

Schools are crucial platforms in our collective attempt to enhance our children's skills and knowledge to ably navigate their way through adolescence, and eventually only when they choose to, embark into parenthood.

This is why the UNFPA has worked with Pacific governments including Fiji to relook at their respective FLE or CSE components in their national curriculum frameworks; it was part of the UNFPA adolescent health and development strategic focus.

Financial and technical assistance from UNFPA focuses on three key areas of curriculum development: scoping sequence for curricula; training for teachers who were to implement and trial the program; and working with the ministries of education to nurture whatever environment had existed. UNFPA also supports development of curriculum resource materials like the teacher and learner resource manuals. This year for Fiji, MOE is going to progress discussions with the teacher training institutes in Fiji on how they can incorporate pre-service training packages on FLE/CSE in their existing courses or offer it as new courses.

FLE program which used to be with the ministries of health was moved to the ministries of education. This was crucial as the ministries of education are responsible for curriculum development and implementation; anything to do with teacher training has to be endorsed by the ministries and most important, any activity that students were to be involved in, relating to FLE, would have to be endorsed by the ministries.

An innovative and fundamental activity borne out of this program in countries that were developing their FLE curricula, teachers who were selected to undergo the training of delivering FLE were taught the basics of FLE curriculum-writing. They were able to write their own curriculum, considerate of their own cultural and social nuances, local statistics and experiences thus creating both home-grown and evidence-based curricula. The experiences of the other Pacific islands also informed this process of curriculum development; some aspects could be simply adapted while some were unique, as it responded to certain realities.

The visionary leadership of the ministries of education allowed another very important move: most agreed that age-appropriate FLE needed to start from primary school level, taking "early intervention" to a new level. This also reflected the importance with which the ministries placed the need to educate young people on the issues encompassed within FLE.

"The earlier children are exposed to relevant information, the quicker and the better they are able to respond to the changes they encounter while they transit from early adolescent to mid-adolescent and then to late adolescent," Penisoni Naupoto, who worked with Pacific governments' on behalf of UNFPA, said.

"It is important to have a cultural-inclusive and age-appropriate type of curriculum which addresses these issues earlier on and in a non-technical but in a very humanistic manner at a time when they are still in primary school; education becomes meaningless when you are teaching them something that has already taken place and they have already developed a mind-set, a practice.

"And as they grow up, coming through the levels of the primary into intermediate schools, they are confident to address issues of puberty which in many cases now are occurring at age nine and age ten. The earlier (FLE is taught) the better because it develops confidence for them to talk and discuss and to understand their bodies, feelings, thoughts, etc."

The holistic approach means students are receiving in an age-appropriate format and cultural-sensitive manner knowledge and a better understanding of their basic body parts and the cycle of puberty; relationships within the family unit; and/or the different gender dynamics.

We all have our own opinions of the family life education, whether for or against FLE or comprehensive age-appropriate sexuality education; this is your basic human right. But may we keep in mind the realities of fighting against misinformation brought on by new technology and uncensored information highways which require us to be proactive about protecting our children.

  • This is part of a series of columns provided for publication to Fiji's largest national daily newspaper, The Fiji Times