The Pressing Need for Comprehensive Education Regarding Sexual and Reproductive Rights

By Maria Fernanda Sandoval

Criminal Attorney Specializing in Child Protection


Reproductive and sexual rights are human rights which have inherent characteristics that are inalienable and untransferable.  They are recognized by United Nations established standards specifically by the UN’s Developmental Assistance Framework.

Reproductive and sexual rights include the right to free choice, autonomously and well-informed regarding sexuality and reproduction; the right to live free of discrimination and violence as related to sexuality and sexual identity; the right to access sexual and reproductive healthcare; the right to seek out, receive and share truthful information about sexuality which is current, complete, and secularly based on scientific fact; the right to comprehensive education about sexuality; the right to full and trustworthy safety, physically, psychologically and sexually; the right to respect for one’s personal privacy and intimacy; the right to be publicly demonstrative of one’s identity; the right to choose one’s partner; the right to decide to be sexually active or not, such as making decisions regarding one’s physical body and reproductive behavior.  Additionally, one has the right to one’s emotional and erotic feelings towards others, through maintaining and enjoying consensual sexual relations.

To recognize, promote and respect these human rights means to defend one’s essential being.  And given that sexuality is a part of the human personality we don’t even come close to achieving these internationally recognized standards within our Guatemalan culture.  Indeed, in certain sectors of Guatemalan society which are lacking in information and empathy, these rights are portrayed as “deniable”, “ignorable”, or “opportunistic”. 

Protection and respect are goals very far removed from reality in this nation.  Historically, according to some national statistics, those most affected are girls and young women.  For example, during the last few years in the departments of Alta Verapaz, Huehuetenango, San Marcos, Peten, Escuintla and Jalapa, one in four adolescents are already mothers or have been pregnant.  Until June 2021, 70,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 19 were pregnant.  And similarly, most registered cases of HIV were among women, ages 15-24.

The LGBTQ+ community also faces serious infringement of their rights.  In Guatemala City in just one week two transgendered people and one gay man were murdered due to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.   One was a legal representative and leader in defending LGBTQ+ rights, and during those last months had requested protection because of transphobic threats made against her.

Therefore, because of so much infringement upon rights, it is incumbent to focus on the fundamental.  The main defense of and respect for gender rights comes out of comprehensive education about sexuality, taught in accordance with thorough, truthful, up-to-date, complete, science-based and secular methods in schools, colleges and educational institutions.   It must be supported by an educated society in which children are raised with a consciousness about their rights of self-determination and consent.  Such that a more free, just and egalitarian society exists.  With regards to sexual and reproductive education,  this type of direction is another way of improving the quality of life for all Guatemalans.

According to a 2015 study realized by the Latin American Authority in Social Sciences — Guatemala (FLACSO — Guatemala) and the Guttmacher Institute in the US, of the male and female students between 14 and 17 years of age surveyed, only 7% said they had received instruction around some of the topics that sex education encompasses.  All that is needed to improve this situation is  implementation of already established projects and programs which exist among the agencies in charge of promoting educational public policy and prevention of infringement upon sexual and reproductive rights, e.g. the Secretariat Against Sexual Violence, Exploitation and Human Trafficking, the Secretariat for Women, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health.

This idea is specifically based on the rights of universal access and equity of services in family planning and their integration into the national reproductive health program, laws against sexual violence, exploitation, and human trafficking, the general law for combating HIV and AIDS and the promotion and defense of human rights vis-a-vis HIV-AIDS.  In addition to comprehensive laws which  protect children and adolescents.

Designing and implementing a permanent national educational program of comprehensive sex education, supervised by the Ministry of Education which extends broadly across the country is long overdue.  Nevertheless, the responsibility does not only lie with authorities, but also with parents and the rest of organized society.  They have right and the moral obligation to make such demands of the government.  Instances in which parents, either out of ignorance or for not wanting to deal with the topic, do not inform their children about these issues, is alarming.  They do not name or adequately teach what to call the intimate parts of human anatomy.  Nor do they explain about sexually transmitted diseases, what consent is and that no one may touch or violate them.  In many instances children and adolescents against whom sexual violence  is committed do not even know how to explain the aggression.  They often feel guilty and many times the abuse continues even as they become of age because they do not understand their rights.  Perpetrators are not accused and victims never talk of the assault.

Cases of sexual abuse of girls, boys, or teens, by relatives or close friends (biological parents, uncles, grandparents, teachers, supervisors) are real and cruel.  The lack of  education about sex and reproduction perpetuates the victimization of children and women (in most cases) infringing upon their identity, sexual and reproductive freedoms.   Incomplete information offered in the public and private schools such as “Say no to abortion!” or “Protect yourself against AIDS”, are clichés which are insufficient and court the limitation of many rights.

Sexuality and reproduction are basic human rights and it is the obligation of governments and of citizens to comply with these rights, just as being aware of individual’s dignity and respect for  the integrity of others.  This approach can only happen through knowledge and education.  A curriculum which strives for comprehensive sex education should not be material for debate, nor be exploited as a smoke screen for taking away from the importance of these issues afflicting the nation.  Protecting citizens’ human rights ought not be a topic up for discussion.  The only priority right now is to act upon the urgency.