By Isabel Morales
Sexual education is always in the middle of a debate between various institutions. This makes it challenging for educators to address the topic in academic institutions and the government to implement effective laws (Muñoz Astudillo, 2017). These different parties are the Catholic church which defends traditional moral views of sexuality, organizations that direct new norms regarding sexual education, feminist movements that fight for reproductive rights, and the government which enacts public policies on health and education (Muñoz Astudillo, 2017). With the second highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the world, Latin America has suffered from this lack of comprehensive sexual education (A Look at Teenage Pregnancy in Latin America, 2021). In order to address this issue, it is important that Latin American educational systems begin implementing comprehensive sexual education programs.
Before the 1960s, the topic of sex was rarely discussed in Latin America and the Caribbean, causing people to rely on medicine and religion for information. Medicine provided answers related to reproductive health concerns from a physiological perspective, whereas religion imposed limitations and moral punishments for sexual practices (Muñoz Astudillo, 2017). It was not until the end of the sixties that global movements of feminism and LGBTQ+ movements challenged traditional views towards sexual education (Muñoz Astudillo, 2017). These movements led to the creation of organizations in Latin America such as the Regional Committee for Superior Education in Latin America and the Caribbean, which allowed the continuation of sexual education academic programs. As a result, the seventies marked the establishment of sexual education in schools (Muñoz Astudillo, 2017).
In 1993, the Human Rights Education (HRE) initiative was launched at the World Conference on Human Rights. The HRE initiative was a global effort led by international organizations. It encouraged governments to expose children to global human rights values, such as gender equality, through education. This initiative, along with the creation of UN commissions and efforts, has positioned both women’s rights and gender equality as global values (Astiz & Akiba, 2016).
However, even when governments are motivated to adopt these global initiatives, they face opposition from domestic groups that uphold socio-cultural and religious values. This opposition hinders the implementation of public policies (Astiz & Akiba, 2016). The church has traditionally controlled education in Latin America which has minimized sexual education programs in the region (Astiz & Akiba, 2016). For instance, Nicaragua was a country in which abortion was legal under certain circumstances prior to 2008. Yet, in 2006, a coalition of religious groups carried out an initiative focused on applying a total ban on abortion. Using religious views, the movement gained power and influenced the Nicaraguan penal code adopted in 2008 which punishes women and medical personnel involved in abortion under all circumstances (Astiz & Akiba, 2016). Additionally, during the 2000s, several policy projects on sexual education discussed in the Congress in Panama were strongly opposed by conservative NGOs. In many cases, the absence of comprehensive national policies on sexual education is not due to a lack of political initiatives but domestic opposition (Astiz & Akiba, 2016).
Besides domestic opposition, countries may also be responsible for fragmented sexual education implementation. Astiz and Akiba (2016) find that countries in Latin America that are more connected to international organizations and global NGOs are more prone to follow global norms and adopt human rights education policies than other countries in the region. This phenomenon of adopting laws that follow international norms is known as emulation (Astiz & Akiba, 2016). Countries may utilize this strategy of emulation in order to gain legitimacy and recognition at the international level. While passing these laws is a step in the right direction, the lack of genuine concern for this issue affects their effective implementation.
Many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have existing policies regarding sexual education, but they are not always adequately implemented. (Astiz & Akiba, 2016). An example of this is Argentina. Comprehensive sexual education has been mandatory since 2006, but studies by the Ministry of Education reveal that many students still do not receive any comprehensive sexual education and those who do receive it claim that it is inadequate (Amnesty International, 2021).
When sexual education is included in an academic institution’s curriculum, it often emphasizes traditional views of gender, sexuality, and abstinence (Muñoz Astudillo, 2017). This can exacerbate issues of gender inequality, LGBTQ+ inclusion, and sexual health. Teachings about sex and gender in Latin American schools typically highlight differences between men and women from a physiological and anatomical standpoint that reflects sex as a social hierarchy in which men’s strength is praised and women are minimized. Additionally, there is no distinguishment between “sex” and “gender” (Muñoz Astudillo, 2017). Gianella (2019) argues that in Latin America, sexual education in schools emphasizes the importance of heterosexuality and the belief that unconventional views of gender promote homosexuality in children. Excluding LGBTQ+ individuals from sexual education encourages prejudice and hostility towards the LGBTQ community in schools and academic institutions (Slater, 2013). It also fails to provide them with inclusive information, which causes them to be underinformed about sexual health and healthy relationships (Slater, 2013). Religious teachings also use abstinence as the basis for sexual education in schools. The idea of abstinence promotes the moral importance of traditional family values and waiting until marriage to have sex (Gianella, 2019). Yet, 38 percent of Latin American girls are expected to become pregnant before the age of 20, so these programs do not prepare the youth to avoid unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases (Slater, 2013; Gianella, 2019).
On the other hand, new comprehensive sex education places trust in young people and acknowledges that they can responsibly decide when they want to have sex. It recognizes the reality that many people make their sexual debut as young adults. Therefore, it is important to prepare them by giving them knowledge about sex beyond traditional physiological and religious teachings (Gianella, 2019). According to The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), this new approach is more effective at “empowering young people to make informed decisions about relationships and sexuality in a world where gender-based violence, gender inequality, early and unintended pregnancies, HIV and STIs pose serious risks to their health and well-being" (UNESCO, 2018).
The lack of comprehensive sexual education plays a huge role in creating a vicious cycle for several structural problems in Latin America. Despite recent socioeconomic growth in Latin America and the Caribbean, adolescent fertility rates are the second highest in the world (PAHO, 2020). Other key factors that affect girls in Latin America are restrictive laws and policies, systemic discrimination, racism, poverty, unequal societal and gender norms, and health system barriers (PAHO, 2020). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), teenage pregnancy disrupts women’s education, causing them to drop out of school, and drives them and their children into a vicious cycle of poverty (PAHO, 2020).
Adhering to traditional forms of sexual education influenced by religious values threatens the lives of young adults and promotes misinformation. Effectively implementing comprehensive sexual education in countries’ national curricula that is secular, inclusive, and gender focused, exposes young adults to information that reduces the risk of unplanned pregnancy and disease, and encourages healthy relationships and inclusion. This is especially important in Latin America and the Caribbean, where the rate of teenage pregnancy remains high and continues to exacerbate many of the region’s structural problems.
A look at teenage pregnancy in Latin America. (2021, February 18). FIFARMA. https://fifarma.org/en/a-look-at-teenage-pregnancy-in-latin-america/
Amnesty International. (2021, August 17). Americas: Guaranteeing the right to comprehensive sexuality education saves lives. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/press-release/2021/04/americas-garantizar-derecho-educacion-sexual-integral-salva-vidas/
Astiz, M. F., & Akiba, M. (2016). Diverse Perspectives in Comparative Education. Sense Publishers. https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2F978-94-6300-654-5.pdf
Gianella, C. (2019, January 3). Sex education in schools: A Latin American battlefield. NoradDev. https://www.bistandsaktuelt.no/arkiv-kommentarer/2019/seksualundervisning-i-skolene-en-latin-amerikansk-slagmark/
Muñoz Astudillo, M. N. (2017). La educación sexual en latinoamérica: un campo de fuerzas en tensión. Fundación Universitaria del Área Andina [Sexual Education in Latin America: A Field of Forces in Tension]. https://doi.org/10.18041/1794-5232/cultrua.2017v14n1.4329
PAHO. (2020, August). Adolescent Pregnancy in Latin America and the Caribbean. UNFPA. https://lac.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/final_dec_10_approved_policy_brief_design_ch_adolescent.pdf
Slater, H. (2013, June 28). LGBT-Inclusive Sex Education Means Healthier Youth and Safer Schools. Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/lgbtq-rights/news/2013/06/21/67411/lgbt-inclusive-sex-education-means-healthier-youth-and-safer-schools/
UNESCO. (2018, June 19). Why comprehensive sexuality education is important. https://en.unesco.org/news/why-comprehensive-sexuality-education-important