Sex education is critical to protecting children from sexual abuse and must be offered at all levels of the education system, the House human rights committee underlined on Monday.

The committee, which was discussing developments in Cyprus’ national strategy in fighting child pornography and the sexual abuse and exploitation of children, found gaps the strategy mainly as regards prevention.

MPs heard that 190 child pornography cases were reported in 2020, up from 161 the previous year. The number of sexual abuse cases reported was down to 197 from 211 the previous year.

Committee president Mariella Aristidou attributed the decrease to the fact that schools were closed for part of the year because of the pandemic, as a number of complaints are reported via the schools.

Moreover, last year social workers and police had referred 318 cases to the Children’s House, a safe environment for sexually abused children that is operated by the NGO Hope for Children.

Aristidou said sex education should be offered at schools as it was one of the best ways of bolstering child protection. Though some progress has been made in this direction, more needed to be done to make it compulsory at all levels of education, with additional programmes, she said.

“Because of restrictive measures taken to prevent the spread of coronavirus, it is to be expected that actions that had been scheduled were moved to later, such as updating teachers on identifying and managing cases of sexual abuse of children,” she said.

Akel MP Skevi Koukouma was more critical, saying it was time the education ministry realised that sex education in schools was the best defence against sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation of minors. Lack of political will by the ministry was depriving children of substantial resources that will help them for the rest of their lives.

Solidarity MP Roula Georgiadou said her party insisted on compulsory sex education particularly in primary schools and special education. She also said children should be taught about safe use of the internet. Parents should be trained on how to best supervise internet use by their children.

Rena Yiavasi, president of the Women’s Alliance, said there was no room for further postponement as regards the compulsory and systematic inclusion of sexual education at all levels of education.

As regards the national strategy, she acknowledged that much has been done but noted that more was required. She added that the Women’s Alliance agreed with the suggestion to replace the term child pornography with the correct term – sexual abuse and exploitation of children.