Similarly to other post-communist countries, the anti-choice movement in Poland has been on a constant rise since the fall of the regime in 1989. With decreasing job security and increasing levels of women’s empowerment, the fertility levels have dropped heavily (changing from 2.06 in 1990 to 1.29 in 2013), and in the eyes of the the ruling conservative party, sexuality education is to blame for this decline.
In 1999, Wychowanie do życia w rodzinie (WDŻWR, the module for Preparation for Family Life), was introduced to the school curriculum. Based on the ideas of family, marriage and Christian morality, this module reduced sexuality education to the anatomical study of the human body, and turned its focus to chastity-based sexuality education. Almost 20 years later, the opponents of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) in public schools still claim that CSE would raise the number of illegal abortions, propagate sexual immorality and promote what they consider to be “sexual deviations,” such as homosexuality or transexuality. Furthermore, in the Poland of today, medical providers can deny women contraceptives, the morning after-pill is available only with a doctor’s note, abortion law is one of the tightest in Europe (with recurring attempts to jail women who procure abortion illegally), sexuality education is practically non-existent and its curriculum is being written by an ardent Catholic who opposes contraception. In one word: disaster.
On the macro level, the biggest issue for integrating CSE into the Polish curriculum is the practically inexistent separation between the Church and government. Poland’s predominantly Catholic society doesn’t accept openly secular politicians and tends to support governments protecting Catholic morality. Thus, any intent to liberalize education policies is considered an attack on the institution of the church and is therefore shut down immediately. What’s more, there is little youth engagement in policy making and political discussion, meaning that most decisions are made without youth and are completely detached from reality. Finally, on the micro-level, there is still a lot of pressure on young couples to marry and start families early (at 25.8 years old for women in 2011, as compared to 33.1 in Sweden or 31.7 in Spain). Thus the WDZWR classes seem sufficient for many.
Comprehensive sexuality education is a rights-based, gender-focused and age-appropriate approach to sexuality education. CSE curricula include scientifically accurate information with no judgement or religious interpretation, helping young people to explore positive values surrounding sex, relationships, gender equality and cultures. In the case of younger children, it teaches them how to name their body parts and broaches issues such as what constitutes inappropriate touching. Contrary to popular belief, CSE can help young people delay sexual debut, and discussion with young people about contraception does not increase sexual activity. UNFPA studies have also shown that, for those who already have sex, comprehensive sexuality education programming can reduce individuals’ number of sexual partners and increase their use of condoms, all of which can have a cascading effect on young people’s futures. Adolescent pregnancy, for example, can lead to elevated school dropout rates and youth unemployment, while poor understanding of gender equality can lead to discrimination, which is ever growing in countries like Poland.
CSE empowers young people to know and demand their rights. In absence of the political will needed to modernize the SRHRs of Polish people, and little hope for change in the near future, providing youth with access to judgement-free and scientifically accurate sexuality education is more important than ever. Without it, they may lack the information and, indeed, interest to get involved in policy-making, activism or the defence of their human rights. If they can’t rely on public schools, CSE must reach them through different channels such as the internet, social media or local events. There are many initiatives, both in Poland and globally, that try to reach adolescents with Sex Ed content: YouTubers talking openly about sex in a teenage-friendly manner, the Polish non-governmental organization, Ponton, with its publications and events aimed at youth, educators and parents, or the World Contraception Day project in Poland – ZapytajMnie.org – offering a database of Q&As for teens with SRHR-related questions. Even the online pornography giant Pornhub recently got involved in the Sex Ed discussion. But it’s not enough.
We must do much more to protect the rights of youth in accessing CSE content in order to enable them to protect their health, well-being and dignity. It’s time to be creative and bold. It’s our responsibility to push the governments to protect SRHRs, and if they don’t comply – to find ways to reach adolescents and empower them to choose the futures they want. The only moral issue that we should be discussing when talking about access to CSE is whether we want the lives of young men and women in Poland, and worldwide, to be happier and healthier.
Entry points for advocacy on comprehensive sexuality education:
Many United Nations (UN) treaty monitoring bodies have recommended that SRH education should be a mandatory component of learning.
These include: The Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
These international agreements affirm, among other things, ‘the right of all children and adolescents to receive sexual and reproductive health (SRH) information, education and services in accordance with their specific needs.’
There is an online hub entirely dedicated to youth advocacy for comprehensive sexuality education. It contains many useful resources and facts and is a great way for those who are looking to get involved or to increase their expertise on the area.