Sexual education – question of morality or a human right?

11.06.2019
This post is also available in: Russian

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, together with other international organizations such as the World Health Organization, with one assent state that : “Comprehensive sexuality education plays a central role in the preparation of young people for a safe, productive, fulfilling life…”. ADC Memorial asked Edyta Jasinska, pedagogue, psychologist and sociotherapist, to explain the importance of compulsory sex education in school curriculum:

“The goal of sex education at school is to help young people build and maintain satisfying, safe relationships. Sex education promotes pro-health behavior taking into account prophylaxis and normalization of human sexuality, contributes to the development of personality, helps in the self-definition and understanding of one’s sexuality.

Parents or guardians are extremely important in learning about interpersonal relationships and sexuality, especially from an early age. As indicated by the psychosexual development of men, sexual education should start before the age of four, because the child is a sexual being from birth. We should however remember that parents are not professional sex educators and that the youth who reached sexual maturity often don’t want to talk to their parents about sex. It is much easier for them to ask people with whom they are not in close contact. On the other hand, some parents avoid talking about sexuality with their children, because it is too difficult for them, shameful and no one taught them how to do it either. The consequence of this behavior is that children search for information on the internet, which is often false and creates a false image of sexuality.

That is why I believe that school should provide students with access to sex education, which is conducted by educators who know how to talk about relationships and sexuality in a professional and positive way.

The international human rights community recognized the importance of sex education too. A number of international human rights conventions and agreements constitute a solid base for the right to sexual education, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979), Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989 – the scope of the Convention regarding sexual education was confirmed and extended by various conferences, such as the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 and the World Summit on Children in 2002) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006). Moreover, their treaty bodies continuously call to make sexual education a compulsory component of learning and to widely promote it and recognized that the state is obliged to ensure sexuality education at school.

What rights are these conventions actually about? How do they build a legal base for the right to sex education? Firstly, one of the fundamental rights, recognized in a number of international conventions, is the right to education. The state should fulfil everyone’s right to education by making a primary education compulsory and making secondary education accessible to everyone. Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Taking into account how important sex education is in the development and well-being of children, sexuality education based on educational and scientific standards undoubtedly belongs to the scope of the knowledge which children should have guaranteed. The right to (sex) education is also ensured, but at the same time “undermined”, by article 2 of Protocol No. 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights, highly disputed in the case of the sex education:

“No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”

Exactly the ‘rights of parent’ is here disputed. The European Court of Human Rights actually confirmed that the state has the right to deny faith-based withdrawal of children from the compulsory sex-education in order to honor its obligation to provide children with autonomous decision making skills, ensure their safety and avoid the formation of “parallel societies”. Secondly, sexuality education is a necessary means to fulfill other human rights, such as the right to health. Furthermore, in 1994 the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo classified the sexual and reproductive health as a fundamental human right, crucial for growth and well-being. In order for people to fully enjoy this right, they need to possess reliable information, which sexuality education offers. Thirdly, an easy access to information in order to fully develop one’s own potential and raise the quality of life, what the sexuality education offers, is a human right on its own too. This is contained in multiple documents, like for example prepared in the framework of the World Summit of the Information Society in Geneva in 2003. Furthermore sex education offers a preventive and transformative tool towards gender equality and non-discrimination which are global mandates set up in numerous human rights agreements. Therefore, in short, the lack of it in the educational institutions is seen as a human rights violation.

The sexuality education in practice

Despite scientific evidence and urging of the international human rights community, the sexual education in many countries is still very limited. In addition, a wave of conservatism overflowing Europe and parts of the world does not help in improving the situation and even poses a danger to this very minimum existing now, even within the European Union. A perfect example is Poland.

Poland

Poland is a member of the WHO, has signed numerous international agreements and has domestic legislation covering a sexuality education in school. In Poland, sex education is carried out mainly during non-mandatory classes called Family Life Education. Despite the fact that the majority of school-age children are taking part in the classes, it seems like these classes do not accomplish their role to provide children with necessary information.

Edyta Jasinska: ‘According to the report of the Sexual Educators Group “Ponton” about 86% of people had the subject of Family Life Education. Young people want to talk about the subject of human sexuality. Unfortunately, one of the most frequent reasons why they give up is a lack of teacher’s competence. The report confirms that sex education is often conducted by catechists, a librarian or a science teacher, generally people who have nothing to do with sexual education. As a result, it leads to the duplication of many stereotypes, the presentation of information incompatible with science, such as “homosexuality is a disease”, “oral sex leads to sinusitis”, “a boy cannot know about women’s menstruation, because he will be disgusted and will not want to have contact with a girl”, “AIDS is spreading among blacks and homosexuals”, “early sexual initiation can lead to prostitution”, “contraception is bad”, “when a husband forces his wife into sex, it is not a rape”. Materials used by teachers often present sexuality in a negative light, focusing their attention on promoting sexual abstinence. There is lack of reliable knowledge about contraception. Discussions about relationships are often presented only from the heteronormative point of view, promoting the traditional family model, a consequence of which is the difficulty in accepting homosexual, bisexual or pansexual orientation. Unfortunately, too often, the transmitted knowledge barely touches the subject and is non-substantial, which is why young people prefer to seek answers to bothering questions on the internet. Equality and anti-discrimination issues are ignored.”

This image of the state of the sex education in the European country, after 15 years in the European Union, is worrisome. Even more alarming is that the very minimum that Poland offers in terms of sexual education is in danger. ‘Hands off from our children!’, screamed Jaroslaw Kaczynski – a chairperson of the currently governing Polish party Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedlowosc) and de-facto the most influential politician in the country. The nationalistic, conservative Law and Justice and other conservatives (political and religious) groups, of which present-day Poland is not in short, do everything to ensure that the standards of sex education stay at a low level or even negate the very necessity of the sex education in Polish schools. Not to mention the WHO’s recommendations, which Kaczynski called an attempt of sexualization of children, an attack on family and a not closely-specified sociological technique to change the human being. Pawel Kukiz, deputy and leader of the parliamentary club Kukiz’ 15 warns that implementation of the WHO’s guideline will lead to masturbation of preschoolers instead of nap time in kindergarten and extenuating of pedophilia. Chief education officer Barbara Nowak (Law and Justice) claims that the WHO’s standards of sex education are the promotion of pedophilia and child abuse. It is no wonder than that the Ministry of Education chooses people for the commission responsible for the preparation of core curriculum of the Life Family Education who are completely not appropriate for that function. Such as professor Urszula Dudziak, who claims that contraception is worse that human trafficking, using condoms causes breast cancer, a woman deprived of the beneficial influence of male semen is sick, non-church marriage does not have any sense and that the vocation of a women is virginity or motherhood.

The topic of the sex education, widely disputed on multiple occasions, recently reappeared in the public discussion as a result of the LGBT declaration signed in January by the mayor of Warsaw Rafal Trzaskowski (Civic Platform), which goal is to support the rights of LGBTI youth in the Polish capital and ensure that school is a safe place for them. Parliamentary Team for Pro-family Policy and Culture (built by all conservative politics, in majority from Law and Justice) invited in the beginning of April experts to debate the introduction of the LGBT declaration. It is doubtful whether this can be called a debate since the experts represented just one, catholic and very traditional point of view. Konstanty Radziwill (Law and Justice), ex-health minister in this government and a candidate to EP said: „some people allow themselves to believe that the classes of sex education are needed’. Other ‘experts’ warned that children will go to school for porno screening and that teachers during this classes will present physionomic reactions on their own body, and so on.

In October the last year, a civil rights group Campaign Against Homophobia planned to organize ‘Rainbow Friday’ in more than 200 Polish schools. The goal was to teach tolerance and make a safe space for non-heterosexual students, because at the very moment they are discriminated and experience bullying. Ombudsman Adam Bodnar draws the attention to the bad situation of LGBTI youth in Polish schools, who are an especially vulnerable group. Violence which they experienced significantly influences their well-being and development and even could result in suicide. Despite this well-known tragic situation of the part of the students, the minister of education Anna Zalewska (Law and Justice) was outraged by the idea of Rainbow Friday and warned school principles that organizing the event would have consequences. At the same time she encouraged parents to report if the event would take place. The action was boycotted also by Catholic authorities, nationalists, right wing media and conservative organizations quasi-officially cooperating with Ms. Zalewska. The attitude of the Ms. Zalewska encourages ultra-right organizations, like All-Polish Youth, in their homophobic activity. On social media this organization announced launching ‘extensive activities to ensure that the deprivation of young people by directors and teachers does not go unpunished’. Some schools withdrew from the initiative because of the safety of children.

Paradoxically, this absurdity causes that parents write to sex educators and invite them to schools, which helps to stay a bit more optimistic. A poll published in oko.press, shows that Polish society is much more liberal than a few years ago. In February 2019, 56% of interviewees support civil partnership. The upcoming national election though puts a question mark to this optimism. Recent history shows that the public opinion can easily be altered. And one way to collect more votes during an election campaign, is to make the people scared, create an imaginary enemy and play a defender. This tactic is well-known to Law and Justice. The party used it during the last campaign, during which in just half a year they doubled the percentage of people opposed to receiving refugees. In the current campaign Kaczynski seems to have chosen LGBTI as the new national enemy.

Post- Soviet area

If the situation can be so critical in one of the European countries that last month had a 15th anniversary in the European Union, how then does it look further to the East, where the idea of the sex education is relatively new?

The answer can be found among other in the report ‘Sexuality Education in Europe and Central Asia. State of the Art and Recent Developments’ (2018) conducted by the German Federal Centre for Health Education and the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network. Among 28 countries evaluated in this report, post-soviet countries were represented by Ukraine, the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. There is undoubtedly a progress regarding implementation of issues covered by sexual education in schools compared to the situation a few years ago, when barely someone thought about this issue. However, these countries lag behind in the implementation of the WHO recommendations and there is a huge gap between countries of the region and the leading countries. There is also a gap between legislation and practice.

The constitutions of all of these countries give everyone the right to education which already constitutes a base for claiming the rights of children for sexual education. Additionally, countries such as Ukraine and Tajikistan have a legal basis supporting sexuality education. In Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan though there is a legislation containing ‘laws regulating reproductive rights and access to education on it’, but there is no law explicitly supporting of introduction of sexuality education in school curriculum. In the Russian Federation there is no law or even policy ensuring the sexual education in the educational institutions. Only preventative education regarding HIV is guaranteed. However, at the same time there are two famous laws ‘On Protection of Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development’ and prohibiting ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors’. Both these laws significantly hinder youth access to knowledge about non- heteronormativity and may also limit their access to information about human sexuality in general.

Ukraine is the only country from the above- mentioned where topics regarding sexuality education are mandatory. However, still some topics are introduced only briefly (such as contraception, gender roles, domestic and sexual violence, mutual consent to sexual activity) or even omitted (sexual orientation, sexual pleasure). The Russian Federation obliges students only partly and covers very limited scopes of topics, mostly concentrating only at the HIV prevention. In the rest of the countries the classes covering sex education are (still) just optional (healthy lifestyle – Kyrgyzstan & Tajikistan, ‘valeology’ Kazakhstan) and do not cover all issues. However, it is noteworthy that they touch upon some important topics such as early marriages or brides kidnapping. In all of this countries, deliverance of the sex education topics depends on the preparation and willingness of the teachers and the school administration, financial possibilities and the religiosity of the region.

Except of the Russian Federation, there is some political will to prioritize sexual and reproductive health and a number of steps had been taken towards integration of sex education into the school curriculum. However, providing children with sex education faces social resistance and is still a very sensitive topic: in some countries heavily disputed, in others being a taboo. Opponents of the school sex education, as in European countries, are conservative politicians, religious groups (Orthodox as well as Islam), some teachers and parents. The reasons why they resist are also similar like these among West traditionalist. They see sexual education as a threat to their traditional societies and social relations. It is believed, contrary to scientific knowledge, that sexuality education will deprive children, spoil their morality and will cause early onset of sexual behavior. As the report illustrates, approximately 10 years ago, a scandal took place in Kyrgyzstan, when some public figure saw booklets on sex education as a ‘sex propaganda’ and therefore a threat to moral, family relations and ‘a gene pool of the nation’. The report stated that it began a public discussion which brought a few methodological directives. Nevertheless during these 10 years fears and arguments remained the same. Female sexuality and self-determination is still restricted. Non-heteronormativity is less than welcome. Local authorities kidnap brides. In March, during the Women’s Day march in Bishkek (which was almost banned), a raising of a rainbow flag (probably by random participant of the march, not planned by the organizers) triggered an alarm among the defenders of the Kyrgyz nation. Some people demand to recall the mayor of the city and punish the organizers of the march. They motivated their action by a threat of the extinction of the nation if the homosexual relations would be promoted. So far, the RF is the only country of the region who ban the access of ‘harmful’ information, but there are numerous attempts to introduce this law in some form in other countries of the region too.

UN Special Rapporteur Vernor Muñoz in the report on the right to education (July 2010) states that “(t)here is no valid excuse for not providing people with the comprehensive sexual education that they need in order to lead a dignified and healthy life. Enjoyment of the right to sexual education plays a crucial preventive role and may be a question of life or death….”. All the more, there is no place for making from sexual education an issue of morality instead of science. It should be repeated that denying children and youth integral sexuality education appropriate to their age, due to any reason, is a clear human rights violation and failure of the state to comply with the obligation to protect a large group of citizens. Restricting knowledge about human sexuality will not keep youth from sexual intercourse and will not turn homosexual youth in heterosexual. What it can do, is to harm youth by not allowing them to fulfill their needs, to grow. It is limiting their wellbeing and not teaching how to not allow to be exploited and how not to hurt others. It will not teach tolerance. In this way the harmonized, modern society with equality principles and non-discrimination cannot be built.