Nearly one in four Kenyan secondary school students in Homa Bay, Mombasa and Nairobi counties thinks that using a condom during sexual activity is a sign of mistrust, according to the results of a recent study on sexuality education conducted in 78 secondary schools by the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) in conjunction with the Guttmacher Institute.

A third of female students and more than half of male students also said that when a girl says no to sex, more often than not, she really means yes. At the same time, nearly half of female and 70% of male students believed that “protected and consensual sex with someone you love is a good thing.”

“These inherent contradictions in the responses from nearly 2,500 Kenyan students demonstrate that there is a decided lack of understanding and awareness about sexuality, sexual and reproductive rights, consent and how to best protect oneself against sexually transmitted infection or unplanned pregnancy,” says Dr. Estelle Sidze of APHRC, the lead author of the report. “We have a responsibility to the young people of Kenya to provide them with the best possible information about sexuality and sexual behavior so they can make smart, empowered choices.”

At a time when the Kenyan curriculum is under review by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development, the release of this study provides evidence and an opportunity for policymakers and decision makers to explore how best to improve the comprehensiveness of existing curricula, in order to better equip adolescents with the information and skills they need to achieve healthy sexual and reproductive lives, prevent sexual violence and avoid negative health outcomes.

According to standards set by the United Nations and other international agencies, comprehensive sexuality education should cover a range of topics, which fit into five categories identified by the study team: sexual and reproductive physiology; HIV/STI prevention; contraception and unintended pregnancy; values and interpersonal skills; and gender and sexual and reproductive rights. The study found that three in four surveyed teachers in the three counties report that they are teaching the full slate of topics that constitute a comprehensive approach to sexuality education. Among the students surveyed, however, just 2% expressed confidence that they were receiving information on the full range of topics from their teachers.

The study also found that while most teachers focus on abstinence as the best or only method to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, the reality is that a quarter of students—most of them aged 15–17—had already had sexual intercourse at least once, and thus needed the information and skills to do so safely. Moreover, numerous studies have shown that programs that exclusively promote abstinence, while withholding information about contraception, are not effective at improving adolescents’ sexual and reproductive health.

“A majority of the students we talked to said their teachers told them that they should not have sex before marriage and that having sex is dangerous for young people,” says Dr. Sidze. “Fewer than one in five students said they learned about different contraceptive methods, how to use them and where to get them, even though equipping adolescents with this practical knowledge is a crucial component of sexuality education.”

The lack of attention to critical, sensitive topics and the negative perspective from which many teachers cover some topics may in part be attributable to the lack of training and support that teachers receive.

“We found that many teachers would like more information and training, particularly on violence prevention and contraceptive use, as well as on teaching methods,” says Melissa Stillman, research associate at the Guttmacher Institute and a coauthor of the study. “Prioritizing teacher training is essential to implement effective and comprehensive sexuality education programs.”

Kenya joined a regional push in 2013 to expand access to comprehensive, rights-based sexuality education starting in primary school. However, since then, full implementation of this initiative has stalled.

As part of curriculum reform efforts, care should be taken to incorporate age-appropriate, accurate and nonjudgmental sexuality education into the life skills curriculum—including how to practice safe sex and prevent unintended pregnancy. Steps must also be taken to demystify adolescent sexuality, and to sensitize communities, teachers and principals to ensure that adolescents are supported in learning and implementing sexual and reproductive health–related skills.

This study was made possible by grants from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policies of the donors.