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Comprehensive Sex Education: A Pending Task in Latin America

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 25 2014 (IPS) - In most Latin American countries schools now provide sex education, but with a focus that is generally restricted to the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases – an approach that has not brought about significant modifications in the behaviour of adolescents, especially among the poor.

The international community made the commitment to offer comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) during the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo.

“Although some advances have been made in the inclusion of sexual and reproductive education in school curriculums in Latin America and the Caribbean, we have found that not all countries or their different jurisdictions have managed to fully incorporate these concepts in classroom activities,” Elba Núñez, the coordinator of the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defence of Women’s Rights (CLADEM), told IPS.

Teenage mom Maura Escobar with her baby María. Credit: Daniela Estrada/IPS

Teenage mom Maura Escobar with her baby María. Credit: Daniela Estrada/IPS

The 2010 CLADEM study ‘Systematisation of sexuality education in Latin America’ reports that Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Uruguay are the countries that have come the closest to the concept of comprehensive sex education, and they are also the countries that have passed legislation in that respect.

Others, like Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru, continue to focus on abstinence and birth control methods, while emphasising spiritual aspects of sexuality, the importance of the family, and the need to delay the start of sexual activity.

But programmes in the region still generally have problems “with respect to the enjoyment and exercise of this right,” especially among ethnic minorities and rural populations, said Núñez from Paraguay.

Countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Mexico have also run into difficulties in implementing sex education programmes outside the main cities.

These shortcomings are part of the reason that Latin America is the region with the second highest teen pregnancy rate – 38 percent of girls and women get pregnant before the age of 20 – after sub-Saharan Africa, as well as a steep school dropout rate.

In Argentina, a law on comprehensive sex education, which created a National Programme of Comprehensive Sex Education, was approved in 2006.

Ana Lía Kornblit, a researcher at the Gino Germani Research Institute, described the programme as “an important achievement because it makes it possible to exercise a right that didn’t previously exist.”

But in some provinces the teaching material, “which is high quality, is not used on the argument that [schools] do not agree with some of the content and they plan to design material in line with local cultural and religious values,” she said.

“Children can see everything on TV or the Internet, but in school it isn’t talked about for fear of encouraging them to have sex,” Mabel Bianco, president of the Foundation for the Education and Study of Women (FEIM), told IPS.

“But in the media everything is eroticised, which incites them to engage in sexual behaviour. And the worst thing is they don’t have the tools to resist the pressure from their peers and from society to become sexually active,” she said. “CSE would enable them to say no to sexual relations that they don’t want to have.”

“Children can see everything on TV or the Internet, but in school it isn’t talked about for fear of encouraging them to have sex.” -- Mabel Bianco

Lourdes Ramírez, 18, just finished her secondary studies at a public school in Mendiolaza in the central Argentine province of Córdoba. She told IPS that in her school, many parents of students in the first years of high school “kick up a fuss” when sex education classes are given “because they say their kids are young and those classes will make them start having sex sooner.”

“It’s absurd that you see everything on TV, programmes with girls in tiny thongs, but then in school they can’t teach how to use a condom or that people should only have sex when they really want to,” Ramírez said.

In her school, the Education Ministry textbooks and materials arrived, but they were not distributed to the students “and were only kept in the library, for people to come and look at.”

Carmen Dueñas, a high school biology teacher in Berazategui, 23 km southeast of Buenos Aires, said it was surprising that even when available birth control methods are explained to the students, “many girls want to get pregnant anyway.”

“They think that when they get pregnant they will have someone to love, that they’ll have a role to play in life if they have a family of their own,” said the teacher, who forms part of a municipal-national CSE project.

“There are conflicts and violence in a significant proportion of families, and teenagers don’t feel they have support; families are torn apart, and there is domestic abuse, violence, alcohol and drug use,” said Marité Gowland, a specialist in preschool education in Florencio Varela, 38 km from the Argentine capital.

“All of this leads to adolescents falling into the same cycle, and it is difficult for them to put into practice what they learn in school,” she said. “Many schools provide the possibility for kids to talk about their problems, but the school alone can’t solve them.”

A project in Berazategui is aimed at breaking the mould. Students are shown a film where a girl gets pregnant when she is sexually abused by her stepfather, but manages to stay in school after talking to her teacher.


“We chose this scenario because sometimes we have clues that there are cases like this in our schools,” Dueñas said.

Through games, the project teaches students how to use condoms. In addition, students can place anonymous questions in a box. “There are girls who comment that although they haven’t even gotten their first period, they have sex, because they have older boyfriends. Then the group discusses the case,” Dueñas said, to illustrate how the project works.

Another member of CLADEM, Zobeyda Cepeda from the Dominican Republic, said that what prevails in most of the region is a “biological approach, or a religious focus, looking at sexuality only as part of marriage.”

Until the focus shifts to a rights-based approach, experts say, Latin America will not meet its international obligations to ensure that “every pregnancy is wanted […] and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.”

This story originally appeared in a special edition TerraViva, ‘ICPD@20: Tracking Progress, Exploring Potential for Post-2015’, published with the support of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. The contents are the independent work of reporters and authors.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

 
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  • TK

    Thank you for addressing such an important topic. It’s important to monitor the progress of sexual education strategies from different angles (rights perspectives, developmental, gender, and ethnic).