On September 27, 2017, the Brazilian Supreme Court – in a 6 to 5 judgment – decided that public schools can have “confessional” (Catholic) religious teaching in their curriculum. The constitutional case had been proposed by the Attorney General, who argued that current practice – that privileges Roman Catholic indoctrination – would violate the separation between Church and State as well as religious freedom. Although the judgment brings severe consequences to education rights in Brazil, it is only one example of the recent battles by conservative religious groups to influence Brazilian public education. The Catholic church has a long history of interference in Roman Catholic countries, aiming to block comprehensive sex education in schools. More recently, other churches and conservative groups have adopted similar strategies to influence educational policies in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America.
In 2011, a school booklet advocating “Schools without Homophobia,” prepared by the Brazilian Ministry of Education, was recalled after strong pressure from conservative movements, evangelical and Catholic leaders. It was denounced as an instrument to promote homosexuality among children and to destroy families. In 2014, the debate over Brazil’s National Education Plan was the battlefield of conservative and religious groups against what they called “gender ideology”. Supported by civil society mobilization, including a organization (ironically) called Escola sem Partido [Schools without Politics] conservative members of Congress overruled a clause in the Brazilian National Education Plan that stated, among the goals of the public educational system, overcoming educational inequalities, with emphasis in the promotion of equality among races, regions, genders and sexual orientations. Vocal critics of anti-discriminatory public policies in education also applied political pressure during the discussion and passing of state and municipal education plans.
Brazil is only one example of a new wave of conservative mobilization that is sweeping Latin America, characterized by the gathering of powerful old economic elites and religious conservative groups. Among its central political strategies, this new wave fights against the inclusion of a gender equality approach in public policies, including school curricula among their principal battlegrounds. Across the region, this movement has won many major disputes with significant impact. They have succeeded on blocking gender approaches and comprehensive sexual education not only in Brazil, but in the Argentinian provinces of Mendoza and Entre Rios, in Monterrey (Mexico), Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and even in the most secular country in the region, Uruguay.
As our forthcoming letter to the Editor of The Lancet (2017) explains, this new wave of conservative mobilization has tangible health effects. By opposing sexual education in the schools as well as the introduction of a gender equality approach within the school curricula, they hinder a core element of public health strategies to empower girls and adolescents, and consequently to prevent teenage pregnancies, which have a devastating negative impact on women, by, for example, contributing to female poverty.
Latin America is already the only region in the world where adolescent pregnancies are not decreasing. A recent analysis of global health progress, published by The Lancet, has shown that if the current trends continue, Latin American countries will not be able to reach their Sustainable Development Goals for reduction of teen pregnancy. The adolescent fertility rate in Latin America (73.2 per 1000) is very high when compared with the worldwide rate of 48.9 and even the rate in developing countries (52.7).
The new wave of conservative mobilization in Latin America aggravates this situation and must therefore be taken seriously by those interested in preventing and reducing female poverty, and promoting gender equality not only in Latin America, but worldwide. If there is something to be learned from Latin America, it is that the battle against gender equality can be strategically used by political groups aiming to gain or retain political power. In this scenario, public health advocates must shift the discussion to public policies rather than moral battles, and urge governments to implement measures to empower women of all ages and grant girls and adolescents reproductive autonomy, which includes access to information through public education.