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EDUCATION-ARGENTINA: Sex in the Classrooms – By Law

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Oct 11 2006 (IPS) - For the first time in Argentina, sex education will be on the curriculum at public and private schools all over the country. Women’s organisations are celebrating the passage by Congress of a key law which complements the programme on “sexual health and responsible procreation” instituted in 2003.

With only one dissenting vote, the Senate passed the National Programme of Comprehensive Sex Education last week, already approved in August by the Chamber of Deputies. The law requires the Ministry of Education to draw up guidelines for the sex education programme in conjunction with a multidisciplinary commission of experts.

The text of the law begins by recognising that “all students have the right to comprehensive sex education” in public and private schools in every province in the country, and it defines such education as “combining biological, psychological, social, emotional and ethical aspects.”

The law stipulates that sex education is to be incorporated into the curriculum, and that “relevant, accurate, reliable and up-to-date” knowledge must be taught. Responsible attitudes to sexuality and prevention of health problems in general and sexual health problems in particular should be promoted.

“This is the essential counterpart needed to complete the law on sexual health and responsible procreation,” Dr. Mabel Bianco, director of the Foundation for Study and Investigation on Women and former director of the national HIV/AIDS programme, told IPS..

That law, approved in 2003, was considered a milestone in Argentina, as it was the first time the State expressed a definite intent to spread reproductive health information and ensure free distribution of contraceptives through public health centres all over the country.

But while the law provided for sex education in public schools, it did not expressly delegate drawing up a curriculum to the Ministry of Education, or contemplate a special law. “Since then we have been fighting for sex education to be finally guaranteed for the whole country, which has now been approved,” said Bianco.

Through these two laws, “Argentina is doing what many other countries in the region decided to do years ago without needing any specific legislation. In Argentina there was always so much resistance from conservatives, that unless a law was passed there was the risk that the programmes would depend on the will of each successive government,” she said.

“We needed these laws so that the programmes would be permanent and nationwide, and so that they would reflect not the will of one government but that of society as a whole, through their representatives in parliament, who approved the draft law by (near total) consensus,” Bianco remarked.

Psychoanalyst Martha Rosenberg, director of the Forum for Reproductive Rights, also told IPS that the law, in spite of its “long delay,” is “positive” because it “made good on an important outstanding debt on the part of the State. The rights of boys, girls and teenagers, protected by the Constitution, were not being respected,” she said. However, the real challenge is about to begin. “Sex education occurs whether or not it is on the curriculum. Teachers will have to take over this function,” she said.

“We took a very important step, but there’s still a great deal of cultural work to be done,” she added.

Education Minister Daniel Filmus, who was present at the Senate debate, remarked that the initiative promoted equal opportunity because “not every family provides sex education” – an allusion to criticism from religious groups who would have preferred sex education to remain the prerogative of parents.

To initiate the process, the law approved last Wednesday created the National Programme of Comprehensive Sex Education within the Ministry of Education, which now has 180 days to convene a multidisciplinary commission of experts that is to define the outlines of the curriculum.

Nearly 15 percent of births registered in 2005 were to mothers aged between 15 and 19. And in some provinces in the north of the country where poverty is widespread, the proportion is over 20 percent, for instance Chaco (23 percent).

A study on Argentina’s adolescent population, by the Argentine Society for Paediatric and Adolescent Gynaecology, indicated that 34 percent of female teenage survey respondents did not use any contraceptive method the first time they had intercourse, and seven percent said they used coitus interruptus, a practice not recommended for the prevention of pregnancy or infection with HIV, the AIDS virus.

Bianco pointed out that although the law does not go into gender issues in any depth, it does stipulate “pursuing equal treatment and opportunities for males and females,” a principle that should be reflected in the educational programme.

Sex education will be taught to girls and boys from preschool level (five years old) through primary and secondary education, and in teacher training courses at tertiary level. In secular or religious private schools, leeway is granted to “adapt” the curriculum content to the philosophy and convictions of each particular educational community.

This exception enabled the promoters of the bill to capture the support of an overwhelming majority in Congress, but it may also be the loophole that allows behaviour contrary to the spirit of the law.

Some legislators with strong ties to the Roman Catholic Church had demanded that the law guarantee participation by parents in formulating the contents and methods of the planned sex education programme. This participation will now occur within private educational communities, which also include board members, teachers and students.

However, Deputy Marta Maffei, former head of Argentina’s teachers’ union, argued that the educational communities “cannot eliminate topics” from the programme that the commission deems high priority.

The composition of the commission of experts will reflect “pluralism,” and it will draw up a programme that the Ministry of Education will then submit for debate to the Federal Education Council, made up of the provincial education ministers. The definitive plan is to be ready in not more than four years’ time.

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