Lawmakers try to bar gender and sexuality education in Brazil, says Human Rights Watch

The report highlights the existence of a campaign in the Brazilian Legislature to discredit and ban education on gender and sexuality | Image: Giovana Fleck/Global Voices

Municipal and state parliaments throughout Brazil and members of the National Congress have used political tools to weaken or ban sex and gender education over the past eight years, according to a report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in May 2022.

In the report ‘I'm afraid, that was their goal': Efforts to ban gender and sexuality education in Brazil, the international human rights organization analyzed bills and laws presented in legislatures between 2014 and 2022 that deal with concepts related to sexuality and gender in the classroom.

The ultimate goal is always the same: to ban education about gender and sexuality from the Brazilian curriculum. The document, which is 84 pages long, states:

This campaign has the support of President Jair Bolsonaro, who embraced the supposed need for these projects, extending them for political purposes, including during his 2018 presidential campaign.

This discourse is still present among Bolsonaro and his supporters. Currently, he is seeking reelection. 

The title of the report, based on interviews with Brazilian teachers, comes from a public high school teacher from Paraná. She said:

Before [the intimidation], we watched movies and had debates and discussions in class [about gender and sexuality]. I'm afraid that was their goal. I don't have the same willingness anymore. Now I have to be very careful.

Despite UNESCO's recommendation and defense of sexuality education, only three Brazilian states have clear guidelines on gender and sexuality in the classroom. In addition, the HRW report found 217 proposed projects and laws threatening this right — 47 were approved while at least 21 were still in effect until the publication of the survey.

The report also recalls that in 2020, the Federal Supreme Court (STF) struck down eight laws that prohibited education on gender and sexuality in public schools: seven municipal laws in the states of Goiás, Minas Gerais, Paraná, and Tocantins, and one state law in Alagoas. The justices considered it a violation of the rights to equality, non-discrimination, and education.

Even so, councilors in several municipalities in Brazil continued to approve and suggest laws to roll back access to sexual and gender education in schools.

The report cites the example of Caucaia, a municipality in the state of Ceará, which in 2021 passed a law to prohibit the discussion of “subjects related to sexuality” and “gender ideology” — an expression that Deutsche Welle points out lacks scientific foundation and has been popularized by Bolsonaro and his supporters.

An excerpt from the HRW report points out that:

In Brazil, conservative groups and elected officials have employed the rhetoric of ‘gender ideology’ to fuel allegations of ‘indoctrination’ of children in schools with ‘political’ and ‘non-neutral’ ideals related to gender and sexuality. By raising fears that children are at risk from ‘dangerous’ information, these actors continue to use education as a political platform among conservative segments of the population.

Political discourse

The research recalls that the concept of “gender ideology”  originated within the Escola Sem Partido movement — the Portuguese name which roughly translates to Schools Without Political Parties. Founded in 2014 and with supporters among right-wing and far-right politicians in Brazil, the movement defends a supposed neutrality that would be contrary to what it calls “ideological indoctrination,” which also reaches discussions on sex education in classrooms.

“Gender ideology” — as the report defines it — was the expression chosen to disqualify research that helps correct inequalities and discrimination.

“School Without Political Parties/Ideology” was also one of the slogans used by Bolsonaro and his followers to communicate with his conservative base. According to news outlet UOL, in May 2022, Miguel Nagib, the founder of the movement, criticized Bolsonaro for allegedly abandoning his project.

When he was still a congressman, the current Brazilian president gained fame and space on television programs to talk about something he made up: the “gay kit.” He claimed that the federal government was distributing inappropriate books to children all over the country.

This fake news spread over the project Schools without Homophobia, which was aimed at educators but never put into practice, according to the site Congresso em Foco.

Despite being part of a federal government initiative, says El País, the material was ordered by congressmen to the Ministry of Education and developed by NGOs, and had the approval of Unesco and the Psychology Council. Conservative pressure, however, made then-president Dilma Rousseff hold off on the distribution of the material.

HRW says Bolsonaro “appealed to a conservative base of support by associating an imaginary common enemy, a tactic made more effective because of the group's focus on an alleged threat posed by gender and sexuality education for children in schools.”

Besides him, the report shows how ministers of education in the current government have adopted the same behaviour, and cites campaigns promoted by former Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights Damares Alves, an evangelical pastor, aimed at persecuting teachers.

Milton Ribeiro, the third minister of education during Bolsonaro's administration, said in June 2021 that the National High School Exam (ENEM) should avoid “questions of an ideological nature.” He was referring to a question in last year's exam that, according to Ribeiro, was about “cross-dressing.” The question, in fact, had a journalistic text about forms of communication of trans and gay people in Brazil, to test text interpretation skills of the candidates.

According to the report, the aggressive rhetoric institutionalized by the government and legislative initiatives generates an impact in schools, even if indirectly. For education experts interviewed by HRW, there is an “inhibiting effect” among teachers charged with teaching sexual and gender education.

For HRW, comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) should be age-appropriate as defined by the United Nations — in addition to being in accordance with existing laws and policies and human rights standards.

The organization says in the report:

CSE policies should explicitly address safe and informed practices when it comes to sexual development, relationships, and safe sex; raise awareness for the prevention of intolerance, gender-based violence, gender inequality, sexually transmitted infections, and unintended pregnancy; and affirm sexual and gender diversity. These policies should be developed through consultation with education and youth experts.

Fear and Harassment

HRW spoke to 56 public school teachers, education experts, representatives of state education departments, and civil society organizations. In all, 23 states appear in the report — 16 with state and 23 with municipal laws. Military schools were not a part of the report.

During data collection, however, Cristian González Cabrera, a researcher with HRW's LGBT rights program, visited a military school in the Federal District and heard reports of violations from teachers. 

“It is something that deserves a separate investigation, especially because the civic-military model has grown under the Bolsonaro government,” he said in an interview with journalists.

Among the more than 50 teachers interviewed by the study, many expressed hesitation or fear when addressing gender and sexuality in the classroom.

This was directly related to legislative and political efforts to discredit these topics and the harassment from elected officials and community members against educators. The paper reports:

Twenty interviewed teachers reported being harassed for addressing gender and sexuality between 2016 and 2020, including by elected officials and community members on social media and in person.

The paper exposes how these forms of harassment create an “inhibitory effect” on teachers, harming students.

The 2020 Supreme Court decision arrives at the same conclusion. It highlights that the so-called chilling effect leads teachers “to fail to address relevant topics […], which would suppress debate and discourage students from addressing those issues, thereby compromising freedom of learning and the development of critical thinking.”

As an attempt to minimize these effects, HRW listed recommendations for the public agencies responsible for education in Brazil.

One of them is a message to lawmakers: “Stop intimidating, threatening, harassing, or mobilizing social media against individual teachers for addressing comprehensive sexuality education in the classroom.”

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