Latin America, Caribbean Embrace Sex Ed as HIV Prevention

William Smith and Esther Corona-Vargas

An unprecedented declaration by Latin American and Caribbean governments prior to the start of the International AIDS Conference commits governments to supporting comprehensive sex education as a foundation for stemming the tide of HIV.

For the Latin American and Caribbean region, the best
outcome from the International Conference on AIDS being held in Mexico City this week may
be what happened just prior to the conference. 

On July 31st and August 1st, Health and
Education ministers from most countries in the region came together in Mexico City at the
invitation of the Mexican government. 
The meeting was designed to bring together the two sectors most
responsible for sex education – health and education – to create a declaration
that specifically highlights and creates government commitments to supporting
comprehensive sex education as a foundation for stemming the tide of HIV/AIDS
in the region. 

No meeting such as this has ever occurred in the region (or
any other region) before.  The seeds for
such a meeting were sown several years ago when civil society organizations in Mexico
worked with the government entities responsible for addressing HIV/AIDS to
create a national campaign to support sex education as HIV prevention.  SIECUS reported on this work in our
publication A Shared Border, A Common

The success of this effort highlighted the role that
comprehensive sex education plays as a foundation for HIV prevention.  And, when additional interventions are laid
on top of this foundation, for example, in those communities with increased
risk, we establish a greater overarching strategy that helps get us out of the
pin-prick prevention that is essentially disaster aversion.  In Mexico, it is taking hold and
working well. 

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The recent meeting of the Ministers was an opportunity for Mexico to
engage the rest of the region in a dialogue to replicate and build upon the
work in the country.  The summit
consisted of two meetings – one technical and one more official that involved
the Ministers themselves.  Neither meeting
was not without controversy.  Several
countries sought to highlight and stress the need for abstinence in the
declaration.  Other countries reacted
strongly and pushed back, not the least of which was Brazil.  It is no coincidence that Brazil is one of the countries that has entirely
rejected U.S. government
assistance to combat HIV/AIDS in their own country and they did so with a clear
indication that the promotion of abstinence and marriage was inconsistent with Brazils’
own values and regard for human rights standards in the context of public

In fact, one of the most startling things from this
technical meeting was the utter rebuke of using the word abstinence precisely
because of the Bush administration’s politicization of that concept.  While everyone obviously supports abstinence as
a good option for young people, many can no longer embrace the term because of
the nonsense and destruction its dogged promotion has done to global HIV/AIDS
prevention efforts.  What a sad legacy
and lesson on overreach for the Bush Administration’s war on evidence-based

But the resulting declaration speaks not just to the rebuke
of the U.S.
government’s influence on these issues in the region, it sets out a new, bold,
and proactive strategy to support comprehensive sex education.  In particular, the document, agreed to by all
governments in the region, includes the following commitments:

  • Comprehensive sexuality education will
    have a broad perspective that is based on human rights and respects the values
    of a democratic, pluralistic society where families and communities thrive.
    And, it will include ethical, biological, emotional, social, cultural, and
    gender aspects as well as topics related to the diversity of sexual
    orientations and identities, within the legal framework of each country, to
    promote respect for differences, reject any form of discrimination, and promote
    among youth responsible and informed decision-making regarding their sexual
  • Evaluate our current educational
    programs during 2009 and 2010 to identify to what extent comprehensive
    sexuality education is incorporated in the curriculum at all educational levels
    and modalities and to what degree it is implemented in schools under the
    jurisdiction of the Ministries of Education.
  • Review, update and reinforce the
    training of educational personnel, from teaching colleges to in-service
    training for existing teachers. By the year 2015, all teacher-training
    programs, under the jurisdiction of the Ministries of Education, for both
    formal and non-formal education will include the new comprehensive sexuality
    education curricula.
  • Ensure that health services are youth friendly and delivered with full
    respect for human dignity. And, within each countries’ legal framework, that
    they take into account the specific needs and demands of sexual and
    reproductive health of adolescents and young people, considering the diversity
    of sexual orientation and identity, and establishing suitable referral procedures
    within the health sector.
  • Ensure that health services provide
    effective access to: counseling and testing for HIV and STI; comprehensive
    clinical care for STI; condoms and education in their correct and consistent
    use; counseling about reproductive decisions, including for people with HIV;
    and counseling and treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, for everyone,
    especially for adolescents and young people.  
  • Designate and/or mobilize resources in
    each of our countries for the rigorous impact evaluation of five or more
    strategies for comprehensive sexuality education, sexual health promotion, or
    HIV/STI prevention in adolescents and young people by the year 2015.


Much work remains, of course.  But the Mexico City Declaration on Sex
Education in Latin America and the Caribbean
is a monumental step forward in securing the future of sex education in the
region. For example, a tandem effort is underway in which we are both involved with
the Pan American Health Organization to develop its own targets and commitments
that will help assist countries in fulfilling their commitments in the Mexico
City Declaration.  This is but one
example of supportive efforts in other sectors than can help ensure success and
that must be part of the larger regional effort going forward.

For the U.S., we look forward to a new administration
that can join this regional effort and make similar commitments for its own
citizens.  Interestingly, the U.S. government
did provide comments to the original draft of the Mexico City Declaration.  While not made public, it reportedly removed
every instance of the term "sex education" from the declaration on sex
education.  It suggests just how deeply
isolated and arrogant current American thinking is on HIV prevention and shows
that much of the world has had more than enough and is fighting back.  Thankfully.

Listen to William Smith on the San Francisco AIDS Foundation podcast, discussing the new commitments by Latin American and Caribbean governments on sex education as HIV prevention. 

Read all of Rewire’s International AIDS Conference coverage here

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