BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA — At 9 a.m., students in a public school classroom in this capital city bustle like ants on a hill. Then, volunteers show the teenagers drawings of reproductive organs and photos of contraceptive methods.
One boy speaks up: “I’m ashamed to buy condoms,” he says.
School administrators say such discussions are so important that they’ve worked to make sure they happen, even as federal funding for sex education is pulled.
“The main contents of the subject are the prevention of drug use, sexually transmitted diseases and abuse,” says Emanuel Basille, principal of the Instituto Parroquial Santa María Madre del Pueblo, where the workshop took place. “We try to give importance to the prevention of diseases that are more prevalent in the neighborhood, such as tuberculosis and HIV.”
Basille’s school relies on presentations by volunteers from the school of pharmacy and biochemistry at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, which has run sex education workshops for 15 years. The group is part of the university-funded Ubanex, which focuses on sexual and reproductive health in vulnerable populations. It’s one of a host of organizations that offer similar free workshops, often run by unpaid staff members.
Without those volunteers, sex education in many public schools might not happen at all. Budget cuts to a national sex education program, formally called the Programa Nacional de Educación Sexual Integral, or ESI, began in 2016, just after President Mauricio Macri took office in late 2015. The cuts have resulted in fewer teacher trainings to equip them to teach sex ed, as well as for materials for students.
Meanwhile, Mirta Marina, the ESI program coordinator, says the program’s budget has actually increased due to an agreement with UNICEF, the U.N.’s child advocacy agency, to lower adolescent pregnancy rates. Still, she admits that even with this increase, the quota for teachers trained in the ESI program has gone down.
About 16,000 people took the ESI teacher training in 2015 and about 6,700 in 2016, she says. About 4,500 spots were available in the first quarter of 2017 and 7,000 more could open toward the end of this year, but that’s unconfirmed.
“Comprehensive sex education is a public policy that must be maintained,” she says.
Exact details about the cuts aren’t publicly available, as the published national budget doesn’t parse out funding for this specific program. In the case of the ESI program, that lack of transparency has sex education teachers questioning the number of teachers who can receive training on sex education.
One former program employee, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing a shot at a future position, told GPJ that there were only 2,000 teaching spots this year.
The budget cuts contradict a 2006 law, the Ley Programa Nacional de Educación Sexual Integral, that guarantees that all students in public and private schools have the right to receive comprehensive sex education.
According to the law’s guidelines, sex education was to be implemented in all schools within four years. But now, 11 years later, a coalition of teachers, students, social organizations and others, known as the Frente Popular por la Educación Sexual Integral, complains that a lack of political will has kept the law from being fully implemented. And coalition members say that with new budget cuts, the chances of the law ever being in full effect are slim.
“The law isn’t widespread yet,” says Carolina Brandariz, a sociologist and teacher in charge of the Secretaría de Igualdad de Oportunidades y Género de la Unión de Trabajadores de la Educación, a teachers union. “It’s been adopted for more than 10 years, but there are teachers and authorities who still don’t understand its importance.”
The government has published guidelines for how to implement sex education, but without adequate training for teachers and curriculum to use, each school must decide whether to offer sex education and how to do so.
Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina
In addition to budget cuts, sex education advocates worry that a proposed law to guarantee religious freedom will hamper students’ access to information about sexual and reproductive health. The law, proposed this year, would enable teachers to opt out of engaging in instruction on the topic if it is in opposition to their religious beliefs.
“The risk is that the law won’t be properly applied and that the content will be distorted to impose doctrines – moral beliefs over an agenda and knowledge of human rights,” says Paola García Rey, a director for Amnesty International.
On the other hand, compliance with the law might reduce the number of teen pregnancies in Argentina, Brandariz says.
Between 2005 and 2010, Argentina’s birth rate for adolescent mothers aged 15 to 19 was 68 per 1,000, according to UNFPA data. The global average was 49 per 1,000.
As education advocates wait for more answers from the government, volunteers, including those from the school of pharmacy and biochemistry at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, continue offering free workshops to students.
“The kids come with many questions; there are many myths around the subject,” says Carolina Entrocassi, a biochemist and program director at the school of pharmacy and biochemistry. “Part of the project is to provide a free diagnosis of sexually transmitted diseases. We do prevention and remedial action.”
And the programs are doing it on their own, she says. Even basic curriculum and supplies are no longer being offered by the government.
“In the past we routinely received materials from the government,” Entrocassi says. “Now, nothing comes to us.”
Lourdes Medrano, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish.