BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA — Ariel Paris Spataro, a public school English teacher, spends 10 to 17 hours per week preparing materials on contraceptive methods, consent, gender-based violence and respect for diversity. He also advises and supports students facing situations that involve violence and unwanted pregnancies. He organizes conferences on comprehensive sex education (educación sexual integral, or ESI, in Spanish) three times a year and follows up to ensure his colleagues are incorporating the content into their classes. Paris and the instructors who fulfill this role at other schools are known as ESI mentor teachers.
“It’s a ton of work, and it’s unpaid,” Paris says. “Sometimes it’s difficult to sustain it.”
Paris, a trans man, recognizes that the majority of those who take on the role do so out of conviction and activism. “In some cases, it’s women with an interest in the issues, or we’re dissidents and trans people, and it has to do with ensuring we are respected,” he says.
In Argentina, where 11.5% of births are to adolescent mothers, according to the Ministry of Social Development, ESI has been required by law in all educational establishments since 2006. However, there is no remuneration dedicated specifically to those who provide the instruction, nor is there an effective means of monitoring compliance, which leads to unequal access to this right throughout the country. To prevent violence and protect human rights, teachers, students and feminist organizations volunteer time and money from their own pockets to improve and sustain access to this key curriculum.
Legislation establishes that all schools should have a team of ESI mentor teachers to organize annual classes in comprehensive sex education; incorporate the content into all academic subjects; and collaborate to address cases of violence, abuse and unintentional pregnancies, among other tasks.
Research shows that comprehensive sex education helps young and adolescent children recognize and report sexual abuse. In 2019, between 70% and 80% of children between the ages of 12 and 14 who reported sexual abuse in Buenos Aires realized they had been abused after they had received comprehensive sex education classes, according to the Ministerio Público Tutelar, a ministry in the city’s judiciary that safeguards the rights of legal minors and dependents.
Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina
The curriculum has also contributed to a drop in the adolescent pregnancy rate, says Rocío Sánchez, a comprehensive sex education specialist and a member of Red de Docentes por el Derecho al Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito, an abortion advocacy network.
According to the Ministry of Health, the national birth rate for adolescents fell by 57.05% between 2005 and 2021.
“These aren’t little things, what ESI is doing. People are able to talk about abuse in the schools,” Sánchez says. “Countless situations have arisen since the schools have become a place where people can talk about these issues.”
Sánchez decided not to be an ESI mentor because it would mean doing even more unpaid work at school than she already does, but the group she belongs to disseminates free information to students on voluntary pregnancy termination.
“Those of us who deliver ESI in schools are activists upholding the law, and it shouldn’t be that way,” Sánchez says.
Funding comprehensive sex education out of their own pockets
Ministry of Education figures show that, at the end of 2021, only 35.8% of the country’s primary schools, which serve students between 6 and 12 years old, had ESI mentor teachers. Paris believes this is the result, in part, of funding shortfalls.
He says one of the schools he worked at used to have five mentor teachers. They were funded by a budget allotted to the school to improve student support. Halfway through 2022, the funding dried up, and the mentor teachers resigned. Paris says he had to use his own money to purchase items to demonstrate how to put on a condom.
Without ESI, “rights are lost, stereotypes and prejudices multiply, violent situations occur,” he says.
Those who take on the role of ESI mentor teacher are supposed to be paid, says María Lucía Feced Abal, undersecretary of pedagogical coordination and educational equity at the Buenos Aires Ministry of Education.
“The intention is for the mentor teacher to receive remuneration through extra-class hours or institutional modules,” she says.
These “extra-class” hours are paid hours that secondary-school faculty receive for performing tasks outside the classroom. But neither the extra-class hours nor the institutional modules are dedicated exclusively to ESI, which means the schools can allocate them to any of a number of activities, Feced says.
“It is the ministry’s job to supervise and see to it that the funding arrives for that activity. But this is more an issue of implementation than policy design,” she says.
Neither the national Ministry of Education nor the Federal Observatory of Comprehensive Sex Education, which is responsible for ensuring ESI is implemented, responded to requests for comment.
Volunteer ESI: the answer to an absence of funding
In response to a lack of government funds to implement ESI, volunteer work has become fundamental. Mónica Fernández Blanco, a licensed nurse, is a professor and ESI mentor teacher at Instituto de Formación Técnica Superior Cecilia Grierson, a nursing school in Buenos Aires. Funding never arrives here, she says.
She and a colleague proposed having mentor teachers and sex education classes at the school after one of their students died during a clandestine abortion. The project began in 2015.
Fernández gets paid for 25 hours of work per week at the school. She spends an additional 10 hours per week, without pay, preparing training sessions and materials while also supporting students who face violence or want to voluntarily terminate a pregnancy.
“They have never paid us, nor has there ever been a plan in place to pay us. We’re doing it out of conviction,” Fernández says, lamenting that the government is not proactive in its compliance monitoring for the program.
At other educational centers, like Escuela de Cerámica No. 1, students themselves take on the responsibilities that ESI mentor teachers would normally shoulder.
Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina
Without ESI, “we’re the ones who suffer the consequences,” says Paola Romero Pastor, 18, who is president of the school’s student center and a member of Mesa Federal de Centros de Estudiantes Secundarios, a nationwide organization that represents secondary students when conflicts arise with educational institutions and other entities.
Romero says the school has reduced ESI instruction to one or two sessions a year, in which they show how to use a condom and what to do if it gets punctured.
“They only explain how people should be cared for in a heterosexual couple or relationship. Then you have to make do on your own, search online or learn from a video at home,” she says. “It’s truly unsound.”
That’s why the student center has organized talks with specialists and thematic games to expand the student body’s education. They have also launched a gender counseling program to train students on how to advise and support their partners.
Often, very young students come to the program afraid because they menstruated for the first time. When they arrive, Romero says, fellow students put them at ease and teach them how to use menstrual hygiene products.
Romero also shares information about gender counseling with student centers throughout the country, so they can replicate the project in the absence of ESI mentor teachers.
“You have a sense that the work is your own,” she says, “that the burden is on you to convey things to the kids that are extremely necessary for them to know, but that they weren’t taught.”