Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population, Poverty & MDGs

EDUCATION-LATIN AMERICA: Let’s (Not) Talk About Sex

Diego Cevallos*

MEXICO CITY, Apr 18 2006 (IPS) - Although many countries in Latin America have laws stating that sex education must be made available in primary and secondary schools, these are implemented in a haphazard way, and in some cases not at all.

An informal survey by IPS correspondents in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela shows that sex education is patchy or nonexistent in the region, with the exception of Cuba.

“There are girls who get pregnant because they get sick, so they need help,” said Sara, a seven-year-old Mexican girl, in a conversation with her private school classmates.

The conclusion reached by Sara, based on a television ad not designed with children in mind, is an illustration of the lack of adequate information about sex faced by millions of children in Latin America.

Educators, United Nations experts, health advocates and human rights activists warn that ignorance creates fertile ground for child sexual abuse, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy and the birth of millions of unwanted babies.

A bill that would expand sex education to four-year-olds at the preschool level made it through the Mexican Senate in March, awakening the ire of the Catholic Church and conservative sectors of society.

“It is a misguided concept that the state can decide what should or should not be done in the field of sex education, as if the state had begot those children,” said the president of the Mexican bishops’ conference, José Guadalupe Martín.

In Mexico, as in much of the region, the laws stipulate that sex education must be included in the primary school curriculum. Nevertheless, millions of minors do not receive any formal information in that regard until the age of 12 or 13.

Since children under five are the most vulnerable to sexual abuse, it is advisable to begin providing sex education starting in preschool, the administrator of educational services in the federal district of the Mexican capital, Sylvia Ortega, told IPS.

In Venezuela, the law stipulates that sex education is mandatory from the age of eight onwards, but there is ample evidence that this requirement is not fulfilled.

“I’ve seen for myself that kids reach the age of 14 or 15 with almost no knowledge whatsoever about these issues, and that helps explain the high rate of teenage pregnancy,” Ivonne Ponce, a health education teacher at the Pablo Vila junior secondary school in a working class neighbourhood in Caracas, commented to IPS.

In Argentina, the Sexual Health and Responsible Procreation Programme has been in effect since 2002. Among other aspects, this initiative establishes universal and free access to contraceptive methods in public hospitals, and the right of adolescents over 14 years of age to access these services without being accompanied by an adult. It also requires the Ministry of Education to design and implement sex education programmes.

“The law includes sex education in public schools, without specifying the grade level, but this part isn’t fulfilled. The Ministry of Education should be designing the programmes, but it seems to be taking a long time,” commented Mabel Bianco, director of the Women’s Studies and Research Foundation and former director of the National HIV/AIDS Programme in Argentina.

“There is resistance from conservative sectors in general, not just the Catholic Church,” Bianco told IPS.

As a result, sex education is still not provided in Argentine public schools. And while it is taught in some of the country’s private schools, there are no specific guidelines or curricula, according to the sources consulted by IPS.

A study on 21 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean released in 2003 by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) found that Brazil, Colombia, Cuba and Mexico were the only countries with widespread implementation of sex education in the school system.

“Education on sexuality is a key dimension of a comprehensive education, it is a human right, and in this context, educational opportunities are essential for people to be able to make responsible decisions about their sexuality,” said UNFPA sexual and reproductive health coordinator Roberto Kriskovich.

The problems that result from not speaking clearly and openly to children and teenagers about sex are abundantly apparent, say experts.

According to UNFPA, between 35 and 52 percent of teen pregnancies in the region every year are unplanned, a situation that could be largely prevented with sex education.

In the majority of developing countries like those of Latin America and the Caribbean, between one-fourth and one-half of teenage girls are mothers by the age of 18.

Around the world, almost one-quarter of the people infected with HIV/AIDS are under 25 years of age, while young people between 15 and 25 account for one-half of all new infections today.

UNFPA notes that girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are twice as likely to die of complications in pregnancy and childbirth as women between 20 and 30. And for girls under 15, the risks are five times greater.

In Brazil, sex education is mandatory in primary and secondary school, in accordance with the national curriculum standards established by the Ministry of Education in the mid-1990s.

The regulations state that sex education is one of the “cross-cutting themes” to be taught alongside other subjects like natural sciences, history, languages and mathematics.

But not all of the country’s schools have adopted the measures, which were described as “a process still being introduced” by Marcio Shiavo, president of the Brazilian Society for Studies on Human Sexuality.

Shiavo told IPS that the national curriculum standards have had a “major impact” on the prevention of HIV/AIDS and teen pregnancy. Above all, there has been a significant increase in the “interval between first and second pregnancies” in young women, he said.

However, there are still a large number of schools with neither sufficiently trained teachers nor the minimum necessary conditions to incorporate sex education, he added.

In Chile, in the name of “educational freedom” – and as a means of avoiding problems with the Catholic Church û the ruling centre-left Concertación por la Democracia coalition has chosen the route of promoting informational campaigns on sexuality, but has not defined a concrete national plan on sex education.

The Chilean authorities have been quick to act in establishing rules against the discrimination of pregnant teens and intervening on behalf of gay and lesbian students. However, each school is left to decide on its own how to deal with the issue of sex education.

A survey commissioned by the Chilean Ministry of Education and conducted in 110 educational institutions in October 2005 revealed that the vast majority of teenagers interviewed had a great deal of interest in learning about HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy, sexual attraction and impulses, and contraception.

Cuba, meanwhile, is unique in the region in that sex education is mandatory at all levels of teaching, from preschool to university. The breadth and reach of the measures adopted and implemented since the 1970s have earned repeated praise from UNFPA.

“Sex education is a part of the school curriculum and is complemented by extracurricular activities and family education. The results have been observed in a significant decrease in school dropout due to pregnancy and marriage,” said Mariela Castro, director of Cuba’s National Sex Education Centre.

Progress has also been observed in the age at which young people become sexually active, as well as the number of adolescents who report that they regularly use contraceptives, especially condoms, which also help to prevent HIV/AIDS, added Castro.

Nevertheless, some studies have shown that young people in Cuba are becoming sexually active at increasingly younger ages, such as 12 and 13.

* Additional reporting by Marcela Valente (Argentina), Mario Osava (Brazil), Dalia Acosta (Cuba), Gustavo González (Chile) and Humberto Márquez (Venezuela).

 
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