RESPONDING to ongoing concerns about teenage pregnancy and AIDS transmission in Costa Rica, the Ministry of Public Education is once again trying to bring clarity and universality to sex education in schools.
At the start of the school year, the ministry distributed policy guides to teachers throughout the country, which attempt to address issues ranging from emotional aspects of sexuality to sexually transmitted diseases and pornography by teaching selfrespect, responsibility and life vision.
The new “comprehensive” guides focus on values and ethics, mentioning teenage pregnancy only once and AIDS twice.
ACCORDING to the official curriculum set by the ministry, sex education has been a part of science, religion, and achievement classes since 1990, and in some cases earlier.
But it may not be enough.
“Because there are so many pregnant girls these days, I think teachers have realized they must talk about contraceptives,” said 20-year-old Karen Mejía, at a recent meeting of Recycling Hopes, a support group for teen mothers. Mejía has a 2-year-old son.
“But what girls really need to learn is how to apply the information they have,” she said.
Detailed lessons about sex begin in fifth and sixth grades, according to Rita Sandí, biology advisor for the Public Education Ministry.
In eighth grade, lessons continue on birth control and abortion. Students don’t learn about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases until the ninth grade.
Sexual education continues through the eleventh grade.
DESPITE this official policy, the issue of discussing sex in schools has a long history of controversy in Costa Rica, where 90% of the population is Catholic, the official religion.
Unlike mathematics, sciences and social studies classes, there are no standardized books used by students for sexual education. Instead, teachers can elect to distribute photocopies of material from the Didactic Guide for Education in Population in the Area of Human Sexuality, published in 1993.
Most schools throughout the country have at least one set of the books, unless they have been lost, Sandí said.
The guides were released after a nearly two-year controversy in the early 1990s. First published in 1992, objections by the Catholic Church resulted in changes – primarily the removal of photos and detailed drawings and a reduction of information on birth control – and a second publication (TT, Feb. 5, 1993).
The new 22-page policy guides were released without approval from the Catholic Church. The Episcopal Conference was consulted after the Council of Superior Education had already approved the guides, so the suggestions of religious leaders were not taken into consideration, according to Federico Cruz, director of the Department of Religious Education for the Ministry of Education.
“IT seems that students are given a lot of information, but they need to talk more about it, about what it is to be human and reinforcing values,” said Nubia Chávez, who teaches orientation classes at Liceo del Sur high school in San José.
Orientation classes are taught to seventh, eighth and ninth graders once a week and include sex education.
Sexual education should include discussions on giving and receiving affection, strengthening mutual respect and living happily with a partner, according to the new guide. A link should be made between human sexuality and emotion and instruction should be offered on problem-solving methods for concrete problems, it states.
TO bring clarity to this vagueness, a 40-hour series of instructive workshops will be given in each region of the country.
A staff of 30 people, trained by the Department of Integral Education of Human Sexuality and director Patricia Arce, will provide instruction.
Because of the complexity of this task, only about half of the regions in the country will institute the new sexual education guidelines this year, Arce said.
The Council of Superior Education originally approved the new sex education guidelines in June 2001. However, lack of funding to print the manual prevented its distribution until this year, Arce said. She hopes to have the new program guidelines implemented at every school in the country by 2006.
Areas in Costa Rica with the highest rates of teenage pregnancy will be the first to be trained, Arce said.
She pointed to a 2002 State of the Nation, which said fertility rates are particularly high in the San José suburbs of Tirrasas-Río Azul, La Carpio-Pavas, León XIII, Tuetal Sur de Alajuela and southern neighborhoods of San José such as San Sebastián, Hatillo, San Antonio, San Felipe and Concepción de Alajuelita.
Teenaged women between the ages of 15 and 19 who live in these areas are 50% more likely to become pregnant than those who live in other neighborhoods of the greater metropolitan area.
“CHILDREN having sex at 12 years old and younger is a reality, it is our reality,” said Patricia Quesada, who teaches Education to Achieve classes at Liceo del Sur. “We teach a little about contraceptives, but the reality is these methods are necessary. We need to talk to young woman about protecting themselves, and about the thousands of consequences that exist.”
Quesada is aware of one pregnant 15-year-old girl at her school. She said last year at least four students at the school became pregnant.
Statistics on teenage pregnancy from the Social Security System (Caja) are available only through 2001. From 1997 to 2001, the annual number of pregnancies in women ages 10 to 14 increased from 578 to 593, peaking in 2000 with 684, according to the Caja. For women ages 15 to 19, the numbers rose from 14,475 in 1997 to 14,701 in 2001, peaking in 2000 with 15,765.
A study by the Center of Central American Population at the University of Costa Rica shows that 52.7% of all births in Costa Rica in 2000 were by unmarried mothers, up from 38.5% in 1990. In addition, 31.2% of births in 2000 were to unknown fathers, up from 21.1% in 1990.
THE new sexual education guidelines will attempt to address the issues behind these statistics, according to Arce. Like pregnancy statistics, records of HIV and AIDS cases are also limited in Costa Rica.
According to the Ministry of Health, since 1983 there have been 2,455 cases of AIDS. The annual number of cases peaked in 1998 with 295. In 2002, the ministry reported 90 new cases.
However Minister of Health Rocío Sáenz said health officials believe that “for every known case of AIDS, there are ten unknown (TT, Nov. 28, 2003).”
“THERE are people (infected with AIDS) who don’t go to the Caja, who don’t go to the AIDS control department, who don’t go to anything, so there are not any official numbers,” agreed Carlos Alfaro, president of the Association for the Movement to Fight Against HIV.
“No one can officially say how many there are, there could be 15,000 (HIV-positive cases), there could be more, there could be less,” he said.