In Latin America, there is a lack of adequate sex education

August 1, 2022 12:45 p.m

Two 14-year-old girls, students at the Jesuit and Maria College, a Catholic girls’ school in Buenos Aires, describe the sex lessons they witnessed. Last year they learned about fertility and the genitals. “That was really embarrassing!” Says one of them. This semester at school they talked about the birth process, but the students aren’t sure what else to learn. The teachers refused to answer some of the questions the classmates asked anonymously. “They said it wasn’t appropriate to talk about it at school and that we could ask our family about these things,” says the other.

Sexuality education is patchy in Latin America, one continent
predominantly Catholic. While all governments in the region must provide the rudiments of sex education on paper, many schools do not.

A 2020 study in Brazil found that only a quarter of teachers had undergone training aimed at sex education in the classroom. “We train according to our interests,” says Vicky Fernández Blanco, a preschool teacher in Argentina, who explains to her students how to ask for consent before hugging a friend and such.

A generational problem
Some countries do better than others in this area. In Mexico, where the constitution mandates secular education, some elementary school textbooks show simple illustrations that boys can pull down their pants to learn about their sexual organs, while girls can use a mirror. In Argentina, in 2011 the Ministry of Education created a textbook to help parents tell their children about puberty, masturbation,
contraception and explain that sexual abuse of minors is a crime.

But in large parts of the region, sex education is indistinguishable from a biology lesson. Although abstinence is rarely actively promoted, information about contraception may be outdated or limited to condoms. “They told us about interrupted intercourse, which doesn’t seem like a good suggestion to me,” says Ariadna, a 15-year-old from an Argentine elementary school. Teachers often do not talk about abortion, and this is because abortion is illegal in some Latin American countries. Furthermore, the discourses about sex almost always concern the heterosexual sphere. “It would have been nice to hear about the LGBT+ community,” says 18-year-old Brazilian Igor Farah.

Many parents who grew up in the same system are unable to fill in the gaps. Sometimes they don’t have the necessary knowledge, says Guadalupe, a
24-year-old woman who works with charities and provides sex education courses to young people in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. In her hometown, adults have long taught sons and daughters that you can get pregnant while sitting on the toilet. Other parents are simply too modest, and for this reason it is common to use euphemisms like “palomita” (colombina) to indicate the vagina.

About 18 percent of births in Latin America are the result of mothers under the age of twenty

Many children turn to the Internet. But that complicates matters, according to Yuri Pitti, who works at Aplafa, a sexual health organization in Panama. “Before the battle was about access to information, today it is about getting access to correct information,” he says. Young guys tend to have unrealistic expectations about sex, especially because they watch pornographic movies.

Perhaps due to poor sex education, teenage pregnancies are common in Latin America and the Caribbean, although the number has decreased. About 18 percent of births in the region are the result of mothers under the age of twenty. Only sub-Saharan Africa has worse figures. Furthermore, covid-19 may have disrupted the improvements that were underway in this area. In 2020, the number of pregnant girls between the ages of 10 and 19 in Panama increased by 8 percent compared to 2019, likely due to confinement and school closures. Sexually transmitted diseases are also on the rise in some countries in the region.

The air of change
Some politicians are trying to change things. Gabriel Boric, the new 36-year-old Chilean president, wants to “introduce non-sexist education”. In other words, to make education compulsory for boys and girls, not only
sex education, but also sexual diversity and gender stereotypes. He wants schools to distribute condoms and for sex education to include topics such as abortion, which may soon become legal in Chile.

In April, Panama’s government introduced a sex education law that requires children to learn how to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and how to get help in case of abuse. The Morena party that rules Mexico also plans to include education
sexuality in its child rights legislation. This would mean that on paper the teachers will have to talk about contraceptives and similar topics. Last year, the Cuban dictatorship announced it would update its 1970s “family code.” If this decision is approved in a referendum, lessons on sexuality will be included in the school curriculum.


In some states, sex education is mired in culture wars. In Peru, legislation could be passed to allow parents, if they wish, to prevent sex education from taking place. Furthermore, if teachers fail to take parents’ concerns into account, they risk being fired. “Con mis hijos, no te metas” (Leave my children alone) is a parents’ association founded in Peru in 2016. The group has spread throughout the region and has already obtained the dismissal of two education ministers in the country. Furthermore, Esdras Medina, the deputy who proposed the law, is the same one who previously blamed the floods caused by El Niño on the introduction of sex education in schools.

In 2006, the municipal government of Santiago, the capital of Chile, also tried to introduce a textbook for teenagers entitled “One hundred questions about teenage sexuality”, which included chapters on what the clitoris is, how long the penis is on average. menstruation, LGBT+ people and how to cultivate healthy relationships based on “mutual respect, communication and trust”. Conservatives objected, calling the book a sexual manual. Soon after, a centre-right politician won the municipal election and took him out of circulation. The new mayor falsely claimed the book promoted anal sex as a method of avoiding pregnancy. Given the conservative climate, Boric’s plans may also suffer a similar backlash.

(Translation by Federico Ferrone)

This article was published by the British weekly The Economist.

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