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GUEST POST: Sex, Relationships and Parenthood – A Network Supporting Young Women and Girls with a Learning Disability

In this guest blog, Yvonne Kerr, Programme Manager in Sexual Health and Blood Born Viruses at NHS Lothian, discusses the national Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood and Learning Disability / Additional Support Needs Network.

Engender’s report, Our Bodies Our Rights, found that a lack of knowledge and access to information acts as a barrier to disabled women’s reproductive rights because of a huge knowledge gap regarding disabled women’s reproductive, sexual and maternal health. It also found that access to inclusive and targeted sex and relationships education for disabled young women and girls is also almost entirely absent from mainstream and specialist education.

Graphic shows a light pink back ground with dark purple text that reads, "It became apparent early on in the life of the group that young people with additional support needs and/or learning disabilities were a group much more likely to miss out on this [RSHP] education, and that this was particularly the case for young people who had severe and complex additional support needs." The quote is attributed to Yvonne Kerr, Programme Manager in Sexual Health, NHS LOTHIAN. The Engender logo is bright pink circle with an equals sign at the centre of it, in the right hand corner of the graphic.

We therefore recommended that “Scottish Government, Education Scotland and local authorities should work together to create a national network of RHSP workers specialising in disability who can share good practice across Scotland”. We are very pleased to be members and to work with Yvonne and others to help organise the secretariat for the Network to advocate for girls and young women’s rights in RSHP education. We asked Yvonne to write a blog about her work in this area.

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Young people’s access to good, high quality relationships, sexual health and parenthood (RSHP) education is key to their general health and wellbeing, and specifically to their sexual health and wellbeing. It is also a right, and something young people can expect to receive as part of their overall education. For girls and young women, it is vital that this includes information and support around key topics such as gender-based violence, consent and preventing unintended pregnancy, ensuring girls and young women know who they can speak to and where they can get help and support if they need it.

To ensure a ‘once for Scotland’ approach, a national group was established to focus on RSHP for all young people. This group has membership from Scottish Government, Education Scotland, NHS Boards, Local Authorities and Third Sector organisations. The group exists to ensure RSHP is progressive, inclusive and is delivered to all young people in their educational settings.

It became apparent early on in the life of the group that young people with additional support needs and/or learning disabilities were a group much more likely to miss out on this education, and that this was particularly the case for young people who had severe and complex additional support needs. The fact that these young people have a right to high quality RSHP education, just as their peers do, and the fact that there is evidence highlighting how this population of young are more vulnerable to sexual abuse, meant this became a sharp area of focus.

Linked to high quality RSHP education is ensuring adequate and clear signposting to specialist sexual and reproductive health services. This is vital if this population of young people are to be supported to make choices around their sexual health and wellbeing, and that services are able to respond to their needs in an inclusive and accessible way. This includes key elements of service delivery, such as ensuring young women have access to information on contraception and are supported to make the choice that is right for them, as well as abortion services, ensuring young women are aware of the options available to them in the result of an unintended pregnancy and are then supported through the route they decide to take.

To begin the work, a meeting was called early in 2019 to look at how, at a national level, practitioners could work together to share learning, resources, knowledge, skills and experience. It was apparent that there was a huge amount of excellent practice in this field, but that practitioners could feel isolated and unsupported in their efforts, as well as having to sometimes manage anxiety from parents and carers.

The meeting asked participants to identify areas of priority. Three key areas were highlighted focusing on having RSHP resources and materials that fit for purpose; the development of some kind of online sharing/network platform for practitioners to access and the development of RSHP materials for young people with severe and complex additional support needs.

The group have continued to meet since the beginning of 2019, and work continues on progressing these key areas of work. Like most, we have found progress difficult over the past year due to Covid-19, but have definitely had success in ensuring work on the priorities is progressing as far as we can. We are making particularly good progress with the RSHP materials for young people with severe and complex ASN, with the national RSHP resource working to meet the needs of young people with more mild to moderate learning needs.

We will continue to move forward as a network, thinking about areas such as how we include the voices of parents and carers, as well as young people themselves, and continue to identify priority areas of work around this key area. We are also establishing links with other national networks focusing on Learning Disabilities, such as the Gender-Based Violence and Learning Disability Network chaired by the Scottish Commission for People with Learning Disabilities (SCLD).

What is clear is the commitment, motivation and high level of skill and experience in the field, but what is also clear is the need to continue to ensure educators and practitioners are supported in their practice and feel able to deliver high quality and consistent RSHP to the young people they support.

Engender is currently running a survey for disabled women, and developed with People First (Scotland), to find out more about how lockdown has affected access to health and support services, including reproductive healthcare and rights. You can respond to the survey here.

You can also read a blog by Engender's Policy and Parliamentary Manager, Eilidh Dickson, which discusses the survey and Our Bodies Our Rights in Lockdown, here.

Guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Engender, and all language used is the author's own. Bloggers have received some editorial support from Engender, and may have received a fee from our commissioning pot. We aim for our blog to reflect a range of feminist viewpoints, and offer a commissioning pot to ensure that women do not have to offer their time or words for free.

Interested in writing for the Engender blog? Find out more here.

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