Children should begin receiving formal education about sexual health as early as age 10, according to a new study published in the journal Global Public Health.

The study’s researchers note that although sexual health programs typically focus on older adolescents, sexuality and gender identity begin emerging between the ages of 10 and 14. Programs should therefore be refocused to to help ensure that this age group has the opportunity to learn about sexual health, contraception, and healthy relationships well before they begin experimenting with sexual activity.

“As younger adolescents experience rapid transitions to unfamiliar experiences and face life-changing situations such as leaving school, having sex, becoming parents or acquiring HIV, parents, teachers and concerned others have a narrow window of opportunity to facilitate their healthy transition into later adolescence and adulthood,” the researchers write. “If programs, based on the healthy adolescent framework, rooted in human rights and gender equity, are implemented at a time when adolescents are still malleable and relatively free of sexual and reproductive health problems and gender role bias, very young adolescents can be guided safely through this life stage, supported by their parents, families and communities.”

These findings call into question the wisdom of sex education, even in the US, that starts well-after most teenagers have already become sexually active as well as abstinence-based programs. But, the study authors emphasize that formal sexual education is especially important in lower- and middle-income countries, where 90 percent of the world’s adolescents live.

The World Heath Organization reports that complications from pregnancy and childbirth is the second leading cause of death for adolescent girls, and each year, an estimated 529,000 women and girls die worldwide – some 70,000 from unsafe abortion – with millions more left maimed or injured. Ninety-nine percent of these pregnancy-related deaths occur in the developing world. While there are many other factors compounding this issue, including child marriage and lack of access to modern contraception, improved sexual health education for adolescents could help to prevent some of the thousands of maternal deaths worldwide, as well as the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Media Resources: Global Public Health Journal 7/18/14; ThinkProgress 8/5/14; Feminist Newswire 12/3/13, 5/9/14, 6/2/14; Feminist Majority Foundation