Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Education (Health, Relationships and Sex Education) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]

 

10:52 am

Photo of Pauline TullyPauline Tully (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)

I welcome the Bill from the Social Democrats and agree that there needs to be a standardised teaching of health, relationships and sex education across all schools in Ireland. The RSE programmes in our schools leave a lot to be desired. While some improvements have been made over the years, they are still not adequate. A programme needs to be much more than a focus on the biological aspect of sex. Much greater emphasis needs to be placed on sexual health and what constitutes healthy relationships. Currently, teaching varies from school to school and is often misguided, incomplete and leaves out important information.

As we know, many of our primary schools in particular have a religious ethos and the vast majority are Catholic Church or Church of Ireland based. Parents, regardless of religion, do not have any choice about what school to send their children to, in particular in rural areas. However, a sex education programme drawn up by the clergy of a church is not in any way appropriate for our young people. Such programmes frequently omit issues seen not to conform to the teaching of a particular church.

Unfortunately, some children and young people do not receive any form of sexual or relationship education in the home. I have always felt comfortable speaking to my children because I got the inevitable questions about where babies come from. Obviously, we are not going to traumatise them by telling them everything at the age of four or five, but we talk to them in an age-appropriate way. That is what should be happening in schools.

As children get older, there can be more frank and open conversations. Children respond to honesty. For too long in this country, relationships and sex were construed as being something to be ashamed of. I do not want my children or, indeed, any other young people growing up feeling they should be ashamed of their bodies, sexual orientation or involvement in a healthy, loving and natural relationship.

Ireland has become a multicultural and multi-denominational country. We have become much more open-minded in the past 30 years or so. It is not that long ago that contraception was illegal, sex outside marriage was frowned upon and pregnancy and the birth of a child outside marriage was something to be ashamed of. This week we discussed mother and baby homes and the disgraceful treatment of many young mothers. This treatment was partly enabled by a lack of information and a deficiency of data. This continues when it comes to the gathering of evidence on sexual violence in schools.

Earlier this year, at the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Dr. Niall Muldoon, the Ombudsman for Children, pointed out that despite the Department having a monitoring framework examining schools, entitled Anti-Bullying Procedures for Primary and Post-Primary schools, it has persistently chosen not to ask about sexual bullying. This, Dr. Muldoon said, the State will have to account for in 2022 when it has to report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Unfortunately, many of our young people admit to watching porn where sexual behaviour is not normalised and is frequently violent. It is important to teach people about forming healthy relationships and consent and precisely what that means so that they feel able to discuss it openly. Tomorrow is International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Our schools have an important role to play in eradicating violence against women by educating our young people on healthy relationships.

Safe sex also needs to be part of any programme, again when age appropriate. Relationship and sex education has to be inclusive of all people regardless of their sexual orientation.

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