Sexual and reproductive health

International Day of the Girl Child

Theme for 2013: Innovating for girls’ education

It is crucial that girls and boys receive health education, including education on sexuality and reproductive health, yet studies show that in developing countries girls know significantly less than boys about how to keep themselves safe.

Key messages


Education is a fundamental right. It is also an important determinant of good health and wellbeing

The Convention on the Rights of the Child enshrines the right of all children to education. Girls’ education is a critical force for development. Being in school and attaining an education are powerful protective factors for girls. They protect them from early marriage, early pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections including HIV. Educated girls become educated women. Educated women are more likely to use the health services they need. They are less likely to die in child birth. And they have smaller families and healthier children.


The world has made considerable progress in bringing girls into primary school, although millions of them are still out of school. The world needs to do more to ensure that all girls get a full primary education and can complete secondary education.

More boys and girls are in school than ever before. But there are still 57 million children of primary school age who are not in school. Girls are more likely to be out of school than boys among both primary and lower secondary age groups. The gender gap in school attendance widens in lower secondary education, even for girls living in better-off households.


Girls and boys have a right to grow and develop in good health. For this, we need to provide them with sexual and reproductive health education that is accurate and appropriate to their stage of development. This provides the bedrock for attitude formation and decision making.

Over 30% of girls in developing countries marry before 18 years of age; around 14% do so before the age of 15. Early marriage is a risk factor for early pregnancy and poor reproductive health outcomes. Furthermore, marriage at a young age perpetuates the cycle of under-education and poverty

Women and health: Today’s evidence, tomorrow’s agenda. Geneva, World Health Organization, 2009.

Studies and surveys from around the world have repeatedly shown that large proportions of adolescents lack basic knowledge and understanding about sexual and reproductive health. Further, these studies have shown that girls are even less knowledgeable than boys.

Improving adolescent girls’ and boys’ knowledge and understanding of sexual and reproductive health, including HIV/AIDS, and building their life-skills to take charge of their health, is a crucial step in meeting their health needs and fulfilling their rights.


WHO is supporting efforts to document and to develop and test – courageous and innovative approaches to reaching girls and boys with sexuality education.

WHO contributed to the development of the International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education published by UNESCO in 2009. In line with this guidance, WHO promotes the application of comprehensive sexuality education. Alongside this, WHO documents and evaluates outstanding initiatives which could inform the work of others.

Nigeria is among a handful of low and middle income countries which moved from national policies on sexuality education to nation-wide scale up. This is the result of an innovative partnership between the Ministry of Education, nongovernmental organizations such as Action Health Incorporated and civil society groups. WHO has documented this outstanding initiative. It has also supported the documentation of the courageous work of an alliance of nongovernment organizations which have built community support for implementing comprehensive sexuality education in Pakistan and have made steady progress in their work in both secular and religious schools.


Girls are on the global agenda more than ever before. WHO is committed to contributing to their health and wellbeing.

It is true that girls are prominent on the global stage today, and that more is being done for them and with them. But in many countries, girls are prevented from being born, they are prevented from surviving infancy, they are not adequately fed, they do not get the care they need when ill, they are not educated and they are not given a voice. By pressing them rather than their brothers with house work and child care tasks, they are taught that their place is at home. And because they are seen as a commodity that must be delivered to their future husbands uncorrupted and unspoiled, their movement and associations are restricted, and they are married off early.

WHO is fully committed to supporting research and supporting the application of that research to advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of girls and young women – some of the most vulnerable and marginalized individuals in the world.


Related news story

Adolescent girls:
the key to ending poverty?

Related links

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