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GUATEMALA: Sex Education, Family Planning Finally Available

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Nov 26 2009 (IPS) - Social organisations in Guatemala are celebrating the entry into effect of a family planning law that will usher sex education into the country’s classrooms and facilitate access to birth control methods, as a victory in the fight against the country’s high birth and maternal and infant mortality rates.

The law, which was passed in 2005 but only went into force on Oct. 30, after facing a number of legal challenges from the Catholic Church, orders the Health Ministry, the Guatemalan Social Security Institute and other public and private health institutions to make modern contraceptives available.

It also requires the Education Ministry to include sex education in the primary school curriculum, with subjects like self-awareness, personal care, reproduction, sexual organs, pregnancy, responsible maternity and paternity, and sexually transmitted diseases.

“We are the Latin American country with the third highest level of maternal mortality and the highest population rate; we are more comparable to the countries of Africa than to Latin America,” Mirna Montenegro with the Observatory on Reproductive Health, a local NGO, told IPS.

And Guatemala forms part of the trio of countries in the hemisphere – along with Haiti and Bolivia – with the highest infant mortality rates: 30 deaths per 1,000 live births according to the preliminary results of the fifth maternal-infant health survey 2008-2009 presented this month by local authorities.

An increase in teen pregnancy, as well as tens of thousands of illegal, unsafe abortions committed every year, are other issues of concern to the Observatory.

The codification and entry into effect of this law “is very important, because it will help bring down these figures,” said Montenegro.

Although abortion in Guatemala is only legal if the pregnant woman’s life is in danger, an estimated 65,000 girls and women a year in this Central American country of 13 million people get an abortion, often performed by non-medical personnel under non-sterile conditions, according to a 2006 study by the Guttmacher Institute.

The report also states that nearly 22,000 women a year are hospitalised for treatment of abortion-related complications.

Montenegro highlighted two key aspects of the new family planning law, one of which was the creation of a national commission on contraceptives, which will oversee and guarantee provision and supplies of birth control through the different health services.

It has been clearly demonstrated that as a result of family planning methods, “women have greater access to sources of income, and maternal and infant mortality are reduced,” said Montenegro.

The other aspect she underscored was the sex education curriculum for primary school, which has two different segments: first through third grades, and fourth through sixth grades.

“Because it’s complicated to leave the responsibility only up to the parents, if we take into consideration that there is no father figure in 30 percent of households in Guatemala,” she said.

Besides the high maternal and child mortality rates, Guatemala has the highest level of chronic malnutrition in Latin America, and the fourth highest in the world: nearly 50 percent of children under five are malnourished, according to UNICEF, the United Nations children’s fund.

“Family planning is not a magic wand, but it is a health measure that can help save lives and improve the quality of life of children,” Dalia De La Cruz, with the Guatemalan Association for Family Welfare (APROFAM), told IPS.

Guatemala has the second highest annual population growth rate in Latin America, averaging 2.1 percent for the 1998-2015 period, only behind Nicaragua’s 2.2 percent, according to World Bank projections.

The new family planning law will make birth control methods available to both men and women.

“Sex education is always occurring, whether correctly or incorrectly, although factors like silence, machismo and the breakdown of the family stand in the way of it being done properly,” said De La Cruz.

“It’s not just a question of talking about the sexual organs or contraceptives; it’s about teaching men and women to understand themselves, to feel satisfied with their gender and to value the opposite sex,” she added.

But the law continues to face stiff opposition from different sectors, led by the powerful Catholic Church. On Nov. 15, the Archbishop of Guatemala City, Rodolfo Quezada, announced new legal action against it.

Since the law was passed in 2005, it was vetoed by then president Oscar Berger – Congress later managed to overturn the veto – and has faced seven different legal challenges by the Church, none of which were ultimately successful.

Quezada, who argues that the law violates academic freedom, freedom of religion, and the right of parents to teach their children about sexuality as they deem best, said he would seek an injunction from the Constitutional Court.

Earlier this year, Quezada called on parents to exercise civil disobedience against the legislation, which he lashed out against in his sermons as an immoral law, on the argument that “anything that facilitates abortion is an aberration.”

And when the law was approved, he compared the effect of contraceptives with that of “bullets” and said the legislation would promote “a culture of death.”

José Roberto Luna with IncideJoven, a young people’s NGO, said “there is nothing unconstitutional about the law.” The Catholic Church “may do whatever it wants, but it is violating Guatemala’s character as a secular state,” he maintained.

The 23-year-old activist told IPS that the family planning law “is aimed at guaranteeing equal, universal access to family planning methods, because it has been demonstrated that there is unmet demand for birth control services.”

The sex education strategy designed by the law should be seen as an opportunity, he said. “No one is depriving parents of their duty to educate their children, but those who are unable to do so will now have the opportunity to complement their own information with what is provided in the public schools,” he said.

The country’s doctors have also spoken out in favour of the law. “We are extremely concerned about the rise in pregnancies among girls under the age of 15, and the high maternal and infant mortality rates,” the president of the medical association of Guatemala, Dr. Mario López, said to IPS.

López said the new law could help bring about a significant reduction in maternal and infant mortality.

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