GUATEMALA CITY. The school year begins this month in Guatemala City, and for the first time coursework will include sex education classes.
After five years of opposition from religious and political groups, who argued that sex-ed classes infringe on parents’ constitutional right to educate their children according to their religious beliefs, the burgeoning birth rate – and high death rate in childbirth – has persuaded the state to approve the classes.
One quarter of Guatemalan babies, if not more, are born to teenage mothers, according to the Guatemalan Family Planning Association (APROFAM). Some of those mothers are as young as nine, said spokeswoman Aracely Tortola.
“Teens are not getting the information they need to make the correct decisions, and that includes unwanted pregnancies” says Yurievna Garcia, a pregnant 18 year old waiting for medical services at Guatemala City General Hospital. She adds, “People my age are reared with taboos."
Classes will span all grades from grammar school to middle school to high school by the end of 2010. The emphasis in the classes will vary depending on the age of the students, but preventing pregnancy, avoiding AIDs, and having a healthy pregnancy among other basics will all be covered. Boys as well as girls will be expected to attend. All students will be encouraged to tell their parents about pregnancies or seek other adult help.
Ester Barajas is part of a sex education team that has trained teens in northern Peten for three years. “We have trained leaders hoping they will replicate the information among their group. Parents were shocked at first but after learning about adolescent pregnancies accepted the courses.”
Her organization will be training public school teachers and sharing their experience with other local organizations during the forthcoming months.
The problem of teen childbirth is not new in Guatemala, but not until the last decade has it been monitored by health organizations and the public health system. Abortion is illegal in the largely Catholic country, unless the mother's life is in danger. But the procedures do occur -- and sometimes go badly. The Guatemalan Women's Medical Association says a single botched abortion can cost the state $4,000 in medical treatment for the mother; a natural childbirth costs taxpayers $100 while teaching sex education would be approximately $10 a year per student.
Claudia* had a C section at 16 and gave birth to a baby boy. “It is complicated; I had to put my life on stand-by plus exposed myself to several diseases. I wish I had a sexual education orientation. Three girls in my class got pregnant too.
The Catholic and Protestant churches are against sexual education classes that will, under law, begin with seven year olds in first grade. They oppose the original coursework that includes anatomy, gender, masturbation, homosexuality, condom use and other topics considered out of bounds by religious leaders. A religious legal team is preparing appeals in an attempt to stop the classes, as they did five years ago.
"The regulation is unconstitutional because family sex education is a parental responsibility," said Dr. Edgar Carrera, a spokesman for the Catholic Church. “The regulation issued last October encourages the use of contraceptives at any age. In the end, women will face cancer, embolism and other diseases no matter which contraceptive they utilize.
Religious leaders are planning a massive campaign to persuade pre-teens and teenagers to hold off having sex and have prepared a manual called “Education for Love”.
Advocates of the classes say they hope they will reduce the number of sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies. Equally important could be a reduction in the number of illegal abortions performed in Guatemala. A study by the Guttmacher Institute in New York found that 65,000 abortions occur each year in Guatemala, with 22,000 of the women involved hospitalized for complications. Alila Velasquez M.D. who works with pregnant teenagers estimates that 25 percent of them are under the age of 21.
The Guttmacher study also found that 32 percent of all pregnancies are unplanned. Its recommendation: “Comprehensive government programs to address the issues of unintended pregnancy and unsafe abortion.”
Guatemala has already reduced its birth rate, but at a slower pace than other Latin American countries. According to an investigation by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta,, fertility rate has decreased from 4 to 3 children per family but that is still a high number according to Kestler.
Vice Minister of Education Francisco Cabrera told Allvoices that teachers will being training to teach sexual education during the semester that starts this month. Educational materials will be continually reviewed and published in Spanish and Mayan languages to reach the largest audience possible. Parents, Cabrera said, will not oppose them because “they will be presented in a scientific and professional way, respecting human rights.”
"The subject [of sex] is never approached at home while the media does it constantly," Cabrera said. "It’s natural that children and teens be curious about it."