Taking the 2030 Agenda from paper to practice, youth as change-makers lie at the heart of imple-mentation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, all over the world young people often face challenging issues regarding the availability and accessibility of safe spaces where they can freely ex-press themselves and engage in social affairs without being excluded and intimidated. Instead of waiting for governments, institutions and organizations to build safe spaces for youth, the question is can we as young change-makers create the civic space by ourselves? My name is Yang Kefan, and I am a 26-year-old Tai ethnic minority from Xishuangbanna, on the Southwestern borderland of China. As a #Case4Space youth advocate for gender equality, I have been en-gaging in youth empowerment, promoting gender equality and non-discrimination at the community level for years. Over the past 7 months in particular, I have moved back to my hometown and started a youth-led volunteer-based initiative to introduce Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) into schools and villages. So far, I have set up a team of over 60 volunteers, organized 53 workshops and trained over 5,000 people. The initiative is an example of youth creating safe civic spaces for and by themselves.
In China, it is almost impossible to organize collective movements, campaigns and protests, so it is very difficult to promote gender equality using these methods. However, very few people would oppose or resist an education initiative that is aligned to international standards. It therefore occurred to me that a good way to promote gender equality in China would be through an educational framework such as CSE, used by governments, UN agencies and organizations globally to educate young people, protect their health and well-being and promote gender equality (SDGs 3, 4 and 5). I started in my own hometown. But things are not easy when it comes to understanding CSE.
In the context of China, the topic of sexuality is a taboo- few people talk about it openly. As the Chi-nese idiom goes, “谈性色变 Tan Xing Se Bian”, “people turn pale at the mention of sex”. Whenever people get to know that I work on sexuality education, most of them are shocked, and the conversation usually ends there. In most cases, teachers who are supposed to teach sexual and reproductive health find it em-barrassing to deliver the lessons. Given the fact that in China sexuality education is not compulsory in school curricula, many schools do not provide such courses simply because they don’t contribute to stu-dents’ grades. Although it is not rare for students to be affected by sexual health and rights related issues
(such as HIV, teenage pregnancy, gender-based violence and violence based on gender expression and sex-ual orientation), schools lack trained teachers who are able to deliver CSE, safe spaces where students can freely embrace positive sexuality and learn to protect themselves, as well as effective mechanisms to moni-tor and solve these issues.
According to the revised edition of the International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education, CSE “is a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality. It aims to equip children and young people with knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that will empower them to: realize their health, well-being and dignity; develop respectful social and sexual relationships; consider how their choices affect their own well-being and that of others; and, understand and ensure the protection of their rights throughout their lives” (UNESCO, 2018). Promoting a better un-derstanding of CSE among gate-keepers such as governmental entities, schools and parents, and convincing them to allow us to conduct the trainings, has become the most difficult part of our work. How do we open the door to the safe spaces enabled by CSE?
At first, I tried the top-down approach, reaching out to local education bureaus and other relevant public authorities to ask for their collaboration, for example they organize workshops and we deliver the training for free. They all conceded that it is a great initiative but still rejected us by kicking the ball. As one deputy director general put it, “we would support you only if you work with Women’s Associations”. Then I contacted a few school headmasters. Again they all claimed to be impressed by the initiative but imple-mentation was never possible for some reason or other: “we will invite you after you get the permission from education bureau”, or “we prefer our school teachers to do the work, not outsiders”. Ironically, many of the teachers came to attend my workshop and found it helpful, but still we failed to convince the school management.
I wondered why and decided to try the bottom-up approach, which helped me find the answer. Using our personal networks, our team managed to organize trainings in villages with content designed for differ-ent age groups. Then we started to get invitations from teachers to conduct trainings for their classes, and from parent committees to organize extra-curricular activities. Gradually, the positive feedback started reaching school management and after a long process we were asked to give official lessons at some of the schools. To introduce CSE into more schools, many advised us to avoid the word “性 (sex/sexuality)” which is considered too sensitive. Instead of calling the initiative sexuality education, we were advised to frame it as health education or prevention education. I didn’t like this idea as these terms are unilateral, and do not represent the comprehensive knowledge, skills and attitudes that CSE aims to convey. Most importantly, I strongly believe that the more we talk about sexuality, the less people will feel sensitive about it. The initia-tive is part of a process of desensitization and normalization of sexuality education in people’s daily lives, thereby creating a safe civic space for the public to face the issues rather than avoiding them.
Who are the people who find CSE uncomfortable, and why? As I trained more and more people from different age groups, I noticed that it is much easier to start CSE at an early age to prevent issues from the
beginning. I realized that the sensitivity of CSE has nothing to do with school kids, instead it is those adults or gate-keepers in power who find it uncomfortable and turn it away. These unequal power relations should not be ignored when it comes to the challenges of building safe spaces. The generation that domi-nates decision-making never received CSE at school, and may perceive it as a threat to the social norms that they have been following and safeguarding, or even to their power and authority. To create and main-tain the safe space for ourselves, we need to develop it strategically, playing around with language and nar-ratives in order to avoid antagonizing the powerful, and maybe even win their support.
Once this safe space is created, we should increase its visibility to ensure that it is accessible to vul-nerable and marginalized groups, and to attract more and more change-makers to contribute to growing the space. Since the initiative started, the number of volunteers has seen a quick increase from only 4 peo-ple to over 60 members, 12 of whom I have trained to become instructors. This in itself is also a process of empowering youth. As they said, “we have benefited a lot from participating in the process, slowly we are also becoming influencers in our circle of friends”. Another volunteer who recently joined our initiative told me “I have wanted to do a similar project for a long time, but I was alone”.
This safe space doesn’t only exist in our CSE workshops, where students can freely talk about sexual-ity and express their gender identity and sexual orientation. It also influences their families and leads to constructive inter-generational dialogue. For example, recently a mother of two kids came to thank me for the trainings. She told me that when her oldest daughter started her period, she was able to handle the sit-uation calmly and felt comfortable talking about it with her parents. Besides, the family relationship had improved, as they had created a safe and enabling environment where children trust parents and discuss sexuality openly with each other.
Young people play a vital role in building safe spaces for social change, and they have the motivation and potential to lead in creating the change that they want. But developing and establishing these spaces in a sustainable way can be a challenge. Without support from governments and civil society, they may disap-pear quickly. In this youth-led initiative to introduce CSE, gaining support from gatekeepers (schools, parents, governments and local authorities) will be a critical step, as it will allow us to secure a safer, more accessible and more sustainable space for ourselves and our peers