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Arming young people with information to make relationships strong and healthy

As part of our series of deep dives into the International Conference on Family Planning, Nikki shares what students want from their sexuality education.

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Tags: comprehensive sexuality education, CSE, ICFP, the Netherlands, young researchers

When Nikki Peeters goes into a classroom in the Netherlands to research sexuality education with teenagers, there’s always one thing that’s in the back of her mind. The 22-year-old Dutch biomedical student and Rutgers Social Change Agent, who will be involved in two sessions at this week’s International Conference of Family Planning (ICFP), was in the past abused by someone close to her.

“It’s not something that I personally mention to students, but it’s always there and it makes me very aware of and passionate about these issues, such as consent, that I am discussing with them,” she said. 

“I want to arm young people with as much information as I can, in order to make their relationships strong and healthy, and as fun as possible, because sex is supposed to be something loving.”

Nikki, who is undertaking a bachelor degree at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, was a co-researcher on a 2019 Rutgers report on what students want from sexuality education. She will be involved in three ICFP conference sessions. One is called  Are you ready for the future of comprehensive sexuality education?”, to be held on 16 November. During it, Nikki will talk about being a young researcher in Netherlands’ secondary schools. She will specifically discuss what students want when it comes to sexuality education, and ask what teachers need to deliver this.

Nikki also co-facilitated a session organised by Rutgers and The African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) called “Meaningful Youth Engagement in Research: Critical reflections from young co-researchers on how to create conditions for success” at the ICFP Youth Pre-Conference on 13 November. It aimed to increase awareness and understanding about the importance of involving young researchers in projects, among other goals. Then Nikki will also be part of the panel during the “Nothing about us without us”: Results and learning from participatory youth evaluation of adolescent sexual and reproductive health programs across the globe.

Nikki said that what she wanted people to take away from her involvement at the conference was that it’s crucial young people receive quality sexuality education as it helps prepare them for the future. “If you want to research youth, it’s very helpful to include young researchers in the process,” she said. 

Netherlands’ high school students have told us that they want more and better sexuality education. They want other topics covered than just anatomy and prevention of STDs and pregnancy - issues like consent and diversity in gender and sexuality

“My age made them feel a bit safer”

The Netherlands is considered among the world’s leaders in sexual and reproductive health and rights. Data shows Dutch teens are among the globe’s top users of the contraceptive pill, for instance. 

By law, all primary school pupils in the Netherlands must receive sexuality education. The system allows for flexibility, but they must learn some core principles including sexual diversity and sexual assertiveness. Sexuality education is also compulsory during the first years of secondary schools in the country. 

But Dutch high school students rated the information that they received on this topic only 5.8 out of 10, Rutgers and Soa Aids Nederland found in 2019. 

The 2019 report that Nikki was a co-researcher on, commissioned by Rutgers, involved secondary students aged 17-18 at schools across the Netherlands. The qualitative study involved her and other young researchers and students collecting data at high schools, writing reports, and coaching and training by Rutgers on research skills. The report found that students wanted sexuality education to be taught beyond the ages of 13 and 14, and that they wanted a self-confident and relaxed teacher doing this, and via a variety of teaching methods. 

“Of course it depends on a person’s cultural background, but generally students were quite open in talking to us, and I think that it really helped that I was not that much older than them,” said Nikki. It made them feel a bit safer – I wasn’t like some weird, old person.

She started off asking them some easy questions. The teachers were very eager to assist, said Nikki. “They were very helpful in gathering people to talk to, very enthusiastic,” she said. 

Obviously it’s difficult for schools because there’s a lot that needs to be covered in their curriculum, but this is an extremely important issue because it really helps young people prepare for their future and to know their bodies

In her final year of biomedical studies, Nikki is also busy pursuing a secondary teaching degree with a minor in biology. One day, she could be teaching sexuality education herself.

“I would love to be able to inform my students about anatomy, STD’s, and prevention of pregnancy, and also giving consent, having fun, the broad range of sexual and gender diversity,” said Nikki.

“And all the other topics that they want information about, so that they are all as prepared as possible in their future and can make informed decisions.”

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