'Like going back 40 years': dismay as Bolsonaro backs abstinence-only sex ed

Dom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro
Photograph: Sergio Lima/AFP via Getty Images

Brazil’s government plans to push abstinence-based sex education to help cut teenage pregnancy rates, in a controversial move inspired by an evangelical Christian pressure group and Donald Trump’s policy in the US.

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The government is also censoring sex education sections of a health booklet for teenage girls following criticisms by the far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro.

The moves have raised alarm among paediatricians and education specialists.

“This is like going back 40 years,” said Luciene Tognetta, a professor of educational psychology at the Paulista State University in São Paulo state.

The Brazilian Paediatric Society said teenagers had a “right to know their own body” and that adequate information was essential to avoiding unplanned pregnancies and preventing sexual diseases.

Brazil’s teenage pregnancy rate has dropped in recent years but it remains stubbornly higher than the world average. The country sees 62 pregnancies per 1,000 teenagers aged 15-19 – compared with a global average of 44 per 1,000.

The country’s families secretary, Angela Gandra Martins, recently told the Folha de S Paulo newspaper that the government of Bolsonaro was considering “I choose to wait” policies to encourage teenagers to delay having sexual relations.

In the United States, Republicans have pushed abstinence-only sex education for more than a decade. But multiple studies have shown that teens do not put off having sex after being taught such curriculums.

Social trends have also complicated these proposals, as people are marrying later in both countries. On average, Brazilians get married between the ages of 27 and 29, according to a 2012 United Nations report.

Brazil’s minister of women, family and human rights,Damares Alves, is an evangelical pastor who has described herself as “terribly Christian” and has long defended abstinence policies.

In December the ministry held a teenage pregnancy seminar at Brazil’s congress. Speakers included Mary Anne Mosack, the president and chief executive of the US “sexual risk avoidance” group Ascend.

Its former president Valerie Huber is now the senior representative for global women’s health at the US Department of Health and Human Services. She was reportedly one of the officials behind the abrupt cancellation of a successful US government programme to prevent teenage pregnancies.

Another speaker was Nelson Neto Júnior, the founder of the Brazilian pressure group I Chose to Wait (Eu Escolhi Esperar).

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“Abstinence is a healthy choice,” Neto Júnior said in an email, explaining his organisation will “contribute in creating campaigns, programmes and projects” with private companies for schools.

“This being the minister’s wish, we are fully disposed to contribute,” he said.

In an email, the ministry said that “scientific studies showed successful results” for the sexual abstinence approach “without implying criticisms to other existing prevention methods”.

In evidence, it pointed to an article on a far-right site citing studies from Chilean schools that it says demonstrate the success of the abstinence programme known Teen Star. One of the studies was co-written by Teen Star’s founder, Catholic nun and doctor Hanna Klaus.

Other research reached different conclusions.

“Research has conclusively demonstrated that programs promoting abstinence-only until heterosexual marriage occurs are ineffective,” said a 2016 clinical report for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Brazil’s health ministry is also rewriting a health education booklet for teenage girls after Bolsonaro railed against pages detailing female sexual organs and how to use a condom. Last March he promised the book would be re-edited and suggested parents rip out those pages.

The health ministry said it was “technically adapting” the booklet for different age ranges. Paediatrician Lilian Hagel, coordinator of the adolescent health committee at the Paediatric Society of Rio Grande do Sul, said the booklet was “really important as it is” because it answered questions that many young girls had.