NEW YORK - Today, a group of advocacy organizations filed the first human rights legal challenge to a faith- based sex-education program with roots in the United States. The Center for Reproductive Rights, Interights, and Centre for Education and Counseling of Women (CESI) submitted the complaint with the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) against Croatia for its sponsorship of a gender-biased and medically inaccurate program. The groups argue that Croatia is endangering the lives of its young people through misleading and inadequate sex education and is therefore, in breach of its obligations under a major international human rights treaty, the European Social Charter.
"We are using the power of the law to hold the Croatian government accountable for living up to its agreement to provide young people with accurate and comprehensive sex-education. Those of us who care about the human rights of teenagers won't sit idly by while a government fails to do its part in stemming public health crises, such as teen pregnancy and the spread of HIV and AIDS," said Christina Zampas, legal adviser for Europe at the Center for Reproductive Rights, the global legal advocacy group based in New York. "When governments support sex-ed programs that feed young people misinformation, those governments are failing to protect the health and well-being of their citizens."
Croatia has sponsored the extracurricular sex-education program Teen STAR for a decade and is now seeking to mandate a nearly identical program. Teen STAR (Sexuality Teaching in the context of Adult Responsibility) draws on Catholic teachings, promoting abstinence at the expense of other viable alternatives such as contraception. Its founder and international director, Dr. Hanna Klaus is based in Bethesda, Maryland. Dr. Klaus says that Teen STAR has been awarded a U.S. government PEPFAR grant.
The program attempts to draw a distinction from abstinence-only curriculum by highlighting its focus on natural family planning, but Teen STAR clearly delivers a strong message of abstinence. Instructors teach teenagers that:
- Contraception "disturbs the essence and the nature of sexual act... can be a protection to a certain extent, but on the other hand, it can give a false sense of security, and sooner or later fail the user."
- Masturbation "is a case of severe moral disorder."
- Fertility patterns should be tracked as a means to maintain and promote virginity.
- Intimacy between same-sex couples is counter to "proper" sexual intercourse, analogizing it to sexual harassment and other socially "deviant" phenomena.
- And stay-at-home mothers make for better families, in effect, reinforcing gender stereotypes.
Legal challenges to abstinence-only programs here in the U.S. have mostly argued against the curricula's religious focus. But this case, the first of its kind, argues that a sex-education program violates basic human rights. Under the European Social Charter, member countries have agreed to protect the social and economic rights of their citizens, including providing young people with accurate and comprehensive sex-education. The ECSR is responsible for considering complaints of non-compliance with the charter. If the ECSR decides against Croatia, it would be the first time an international human rights body reinforced the principle that failing to provide comprehensive, scientific-based, non-discriminatory sexual education violates young people's fundamental human rights.
Individual Croatian government officials and an independent commission charged with reviewing Croatia's sex education programs have already concluded that Teen STAR is neither based in science nor expert medical facts, and that the program fails to address the research and available data on Croatian teenagers' sexual behavior. Research shows that sexually transmitted infections are increasing at startling rates among Croatian youth, with the number of those engaging in risky behaviors on the rise.
"Croatia is failing in its obligations under international human rights law to provide accurate science-based sexual and reproductive health education to its youth which is an integral part of its duty to provide meaningful education and to take positive steps to protect the health of young people," said David Geer, Executive Director at Interights, the International Centre for the Legal Protection of Human Rights based in London. "As a result the government is creating a generation of people ignorant of the dangers of HIV and AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections-all of which are fast becoming major threats to the health and lives of Croatian youth."
"It is imperative that Croatia meet its legal responsibilities under international and European Union law and implement comprehensive, non-discriminatory sex-ed in its schools," said Sanja Cesar, Program Manager of CESI, a feminist organization based in Zagreb, Croatia.
The complaint also calls on the Croatian government to train teachers to deliver appropriate and good quality sex education and to set up an oversight process to regulate, monitor and evaluate the school-based curriculum.