Brazil: Conservative mobilization and adolescent pregnancy in Latin America

Many thanks to scholars  Camila Gianella, Marta R. de Assis Machado, and Angélica Peñas Defago, for sharing their research with readers of the Reprohealthlaw Blog.

On September 27, 2017, the Brazilian Supreme Court – in a 6 to 5 judgmentdecided 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 that 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.

About the authors: 
Camila Gianella, M.Sc, Ph,H. has worked as researcher and consultant for projects on sexual and reproductive rights, the right to health, tuberculosis, mental health and transitional justice. She has been a counselor in HIV and Tuberculosis services, and also worked with asylum seekers.   She now works as a researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), Bergen, Norway,

Marta Rodriguez de Assis Machado has Master’s (2004) and PhD (2007) degrees  in Philosophy and Theory of Law at University of Sao Paulo.  Since 2007, she has served as full time professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation Law School in Sao Paulo, researcher at the Brazilian Center of Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP); and global fellow at the Centre on Law & Social Transformation (CMI) at the University of Bergen, Norway.

María Angélica Peñas Defago obtained her PhD in Law and Social Sciences at the National University of Cordoba (UNC), Argentina, where he is now Assistant Professor of Legal Sociology, and a  Researcher and Professor in the Sexual and Reproductive Rights Program, School of Law, UNC, Post-doctoral Fellow of the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research, Argentina (CONICET / CIJS-UNC).
Related resources: 
Maria Jose Rivas Vera, “Sexuality Education in Paraguay: Using Human Rights and International Policies to Define Adolescents’ Right to Sexuality Education” (LL.M. thesis, University of Toronto, 2015) thesis online.   

Julieta Lemaitre, “Catholic Constitutionalism on Sex, Women, and the Beginning of Life,” Abortion Law in Transnational Perspective: Cases and Controversies ed. Rebecca J. Cook, Joanna N. Erdman, and Bernard M. Dickens (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014) pp 239-257, notes pp. 430-434. Abstract in English.   Resumen en espanolLibro en español.


Compiled by the Coordinator of the International Reproductive and Sexual Health Law Program, reprohealth*law at For Program publications and resources, see our website, online here. TO JOIN THIS BLOG: enter your email address in upper right corner of this webpage, then check your email to confirm the subscription.


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