Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Education (Health, Relationships and Sex Education) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
Paul Donnelly (Dublin West, Sinn Fein)
I thank Deputy Gannon and the Social Democrats for bringing forward this Bill. We are very happy to support it. I listened to the Minister's speech and, unfortunately, although there were fine words, the fact that we are kicking the can down the road for another nine months says it all regarding the response of the Government.
I have been very privileged to have been in a position to provide sexual health education and training to young people in a Youthreach centre I worked in for a number of years. We delivered a number of programmes over the years. We had a factually-based programme that covered sexual health and relationships in a non-judgmental way. Young people engaged in a two-way process that helped us to develop the programme. I knew from our evaluations of the programme that it was welcomed by the students. It took place over a two-day period on a consistent basis and was extremely successful. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many students in our schools, where sexual health and relationship programmes are very limited or, in some cases, non-existent. In some cases, the curriculum is not adequately informing our young people of the facts.
As I stated, a report from the HSE showed that there are significant variations in the content and scope of the RSE programme across schools. We know that a significant cohort of young people have not received any information at home. Therefore, it is important now, more than ever, that school-based RSE programmes sufficiently inform our young people of the facts.
The issue of specific concern that needs to be addressed in regard to the RSE programme at the moment is consent, something which has been raised during the debate in respect of young people and coercive control affecting those aged under 18. Connected to this is the use of social media and its damaging effect on relationships and young people. We hear this consistently. A fantastic programme was run by the Blakestown and Mountview Youth Initiative, in conjunction with Fingal County Council, about coercive control and the impact social media has on young people.
One cohort which is particularly affected is young people in the LGBTQ+ community, given the lack of inclusion in the current Department of Education model. Some schools are good at inclusion, but that is not the case across the board. I am thinking especially about young people who are in schools where there is no inclusion and how they feel. No child should feel his or her identity, sexuality or family circumstances is lesser because he or she is not included in a sexual education programme as prescribed by a school, the ethos of the school or a teacher.
Ireland has changed, and for the better, over the past number of years following the passing by a substantial majority of our citizens of the referendums on marriage equality and the eighth amendment. Our people are well ahead of this programme and the Government in terms of sexual health and relationship education. The simple message is that the Government must catch up. Kicking the can down the road for a further nine months is not acceptable.
I have worked with young people for 20 years through the school completion programme, Youthreach and Tusla. They want to be fully informed and know how to be safe in their current or future relationships. We have to trust young people enough to help and support them in order to equip them properly with the skills necessary to feel confident discussing these matters.
The process should begin in school but also in the home. I encourage parents to take the brave step of talking to their children about their sexual health and relationships. Collectively, we can have a great impact on their lives. As I have said, it is extremely important that the Government drops its amendment to the motion today and moves forward so that we can all move forward together, discuss the Bill and put in place a proper programme for our young people. Our young people deserve that.