Love Your Neighbor, But Not Too Much: Political and Religious Involvement in Sex Education within Polish Public Schools

Elena, age 14, attends her church’s ‘Family Life’ classes, where she is told that condoms are barriers to partner unity and love, and that HIVAIDS is only a symptom of a larger disease in society—adultery.

Grzegorz, age 17, gets most of his information about sex and reproduction from his friends, which he admits may not be “very accurate”.

Magda, age 18, remembers being taught that women have two types of orgasms and men only have one in her Preparation for Family Life class, which met unexpectedly when her regular teacher was absent.

Piotr, age 13, is taught about his future role as the protector of and provider for his family in Social Studies class at his high school.

Hanna, age 15, reads in her government-approved and –distributed Family Life textbook that Swiss scientists have proven that hormonal contraceptives, such as the pill, cause infertility and cancer. 

The human rights sub-field of sexual and reproductive rights, with sex education as an essential component, is part of the larger body of basic rights which Poland is struggling to realize in the face of a transitioning political system and the entrenched Catholic Church.  Sexual and Reproductive Rights (SRR)—the set of rights which ensure education, information, health care, and individual choice regarding sexual and reproductive matters—are often overlooked as the government works to ensure other rights which are viewed as more basic, like free elections and free markets; a situation that is especially true in the context of states in transition.  Sex education in public schools, functioning as the primary source of accurate information about sexual relations and reproduction, is an integral part of SRR that plays an early role in determining whether a child will realize other SRRs and assert them later in life.

In Poland, sex education, officially named “Preparation for Family Life”, is confused by deep, invested political and religious involvement from all sides.  While opposing perspectives battle for altered sex education policy and curricula, the children in Polish public schools are systematically denied their basic human rights to information, education, freedom of speech, and the ability to exercise informed choice, as outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and countless other documents and conferences.

What’s In a Name?

Sex education takes many forms: its definition depends on who you ask.  However, it is generally accepted that “complete” sex education, as the non-governmental organization AVERT reports:  “…Is the process of acquiring information and forming attitudes and beliefs about sex, sexual identity, relationships, and intimacy.  It is also about developing young people’s skills so that they make informed choices about their behavior, and feel confident and competent about acting on these choices.”   Sex education is viewed by many to be an indispensable part of a young person’s education and an inherent human right; this is in large part because the knowledge bestowed – if accurate and complete – works to protect adolescents against abuse, exploitation, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), unintended pregnancies, HIV/AIDS, and helps them to make healthy, informed choices.  Supporters of sex education also promote the exploration of relationships, interpersonal relations, and the values of mutual respect and choice with respect to sex.  Indeed, a widely-accepted and integral part of sex education is the lesson “to respect oneself and other people and their feelings, decisions, and bodies.”   Finally, gender differences, ethnicity, and sexuality should all be addressed in terms of how they may affect one’s options, decisions, and feelings.

In Poland, classes called “Preparation for Family Life” are officially required of all schools, and are the closest thing to sex education offered to Polish students.  General stipulations for sex education in Polish public schools are a part of a law introduced in 1993 and subsequently passed in 2002, entitled “Family Planning, Human Fetus Protection, and Permissible Conditions of Abortion”.  According to this law, Preparation for Family Life classes should include “knowledge considering sexual life, conscious and responsible parenthood, family values, life in prenatal phase, and methods of conscious procreation.”   In fifth and sixth grades, the primary school principal is required to schedule 14 hours for the class throughout the school year, and in high school, each grade is to receive 14 hours of information on the subject in a class called “Knowledge About Society.”  Finally, in high school, students are to receive ten hours of Preparation for Family Life.  In all classes except high school, about half of the hours are designated for separate instruction of boys and girls.

And In Reality… 

Although the classes are deemed mandatory, says Professor Zbigniew Izdebski, a sexologist and researcher of cultural attitudes towards sex, both the law’s vague requirements, which leave it open to wide interpretation, and the lack of resources allotted for Family Life classes result in the classes being irregular, inconsistent, and often completely non-existent.  Even if principals don’t find the lack of textbooks, trained teachers, materials, and fixed schedules a problem in carrying out the classes, they may decide to cut them completely based on their own personal view.  Teachers must also agree to conduct the classes and allow their students the time to attend them, and parents must sign a permission form allowing their child to take part.  

Dr. Zbigniew Lew-Starowicz, a gynecologist, sexologist, an International Planned Parenthood Federation affiliate, and twice former president of the Polish NGO, Towarzystwo Rozwoju Rodziny (Association for Family Development), says the first step towards remediating Polish sex education is to ensure the existence of Family Life classes in the first place.  The majority of Polish adolescents don’t even have such classes, he says, either because their principals or teachers have not allocated time for them or because their parents have withdrawn them from the classes.  Professor Magdalena Środa, a philosophy and ethics professor at Warsaw University and past Government Plenipotentiary for the Equal Status of Women and Men, emphasizes that the classes are even more restricted or non-existent in Poland’s rural areas, which in a country that remains primarily agricultural, accounts for almost half of all youth.  She referred to a conference she organized on sex education, where after asking the 300 Polish students in attendance to raise their hand if they had had at least one hour of sex education, only a handful could comply.  

Likewise, Dr. Professor Zbigniew Lew-Starowicz referred to “small islands around the country” – mostly urban centers – as providing, in his opinion, sufficient sex education. Speaking to five students from various schools in Warsaw, all confirmed they had received lessons, however short and infrequent, on various contraceptive methods, STDs, and HIV/AIDS.  No students from more rural areas were available to be interviewed; however, from reading various reports and surveys, it does seem as if these Warsaw students enjoyed an exceptional experience.

Another reality is the large extent to which principals and teachers are able to shape the content, structure, and schedule of the classes.  Over the course of our research, it seemed that the overwhelming majority of Family Life classes focused on preparing students for marriage and family life, rather than providing information on sexual health and reproductive matters. “Traditional family values and marriage are emphasized over gender equality and partner relations,” asserts Professor Izdebski.   Professor Środa agreed: “Of course, it’s ‘Preparation for Catholic Family Life,’” she laughed, noting the bitter irony she finds in the comparison of current classes to the similarly-named “Preparation for Socialist Family Life” classes she had as a student. 

Polish politician and member of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) Artur Górski fully admits the lack of sex education in Polish public classrooms and says there is a good reason for it.  “Currently there is practically no sex education in schools and I don’t think that there is any need to bring it into them. There is a big danger that according to current tendencies and modern fashion such education would lead to unnecessary sex promotion and even some sexual degeneration,” he claims.   Górski is firm in his belief that sex education should be taught at home, not in schools, and that any public dissemination of knowledge about sexual or reproductive matters would result in a widespread shift of Polish youths’ values and behavior.  With such attitudes among people in powerful government positions, the state of sex education in Polish schools is hardly surprising.

It’s All In the Wording

Several interviewees mentioned the role of textbooks and the language they utilize within Family Life classes.  Although the government does not require the use of particular textbooks in such classes, it does recommend certain texts and, in one case, distributed 100,000 books written by a particular author to schools all over Poland.  The problem, say researchers and specialists like Lew-Starowicz, Środa, and Izdebski, is that the recommended textbooks are rife with gender stereotypes, where men are natural leaders and businessmen while women are natural mothers. They even contain scientifically inaccurate information about condoms, claiming that they have large pores which allow sexually transmitted illnesses to pass.  Professor Środa emphasized the use of language in the books and in Family Life classes more generally.  When textbooks and teachers refer to embryos as “unborn children”, a notion expressed on a governmental level as well (i.e. “Human Fetus Protection” law), objectivity is sacrificed for a religious point of view, she says.

Much like other interviewees, Father Mogielski, a Dominican priest who teaches similar Family Life classes for youth at church, also claims that there is scientifically inaccurate information in some Family Life textbooks; he says the whole truth about hormonal contraceptives, for example, isn’t revealed. However, he believes these contraceptives actually cause infertility and bodily changes within women, and therefore are not as harmless as they are reported to be in the textbooks endorsed by Lew-Starowicz, Środa, and Izdebski.

Furthermore, Father Mogielski claims that the textbooks and language used in schools are not objective because they are taken out of the context of a particular set of universal values – such as love, respect, honesty, trust, and family – which is vital to fully understanding the role of sexual relations in society. “Some people say these are the Church’s values,” Father Mogielski argues, “but these values come before the Church; they are basic to human beings.” However, Artur Górski goes one step further than Father Mogielski in saying that Preparation for Family Life classes should “include more Christian values, which are universal.” 

Instead of inserting religious values into public education, which Father Mogielski says he opposes, discussing family and sexual relations within this framework of universal values helps the student to make informed, responsible choices. For example, in his family life classes, “Never Enough About Love”, held at church, Father Mogielski says he gives his students the freedom to choose their own opinions about sex by discussing all aspects of relationships and sex – including such taboo topics as homosexuality and contraceptives – in a values-oriented manner.  

Case Study: Warsaw High School

The experience of a Warsaw high school Family Life teacher and school psychologist, whose identity will be kept anonymous, mirrors that of other teachers in her position.  Of a fairly liberal persuasion in the Polish context, the teacher joked, “I hope they won’t fire me!” prior to commencing our interview. Better trained than most, she attended a two-year course on teaching Family Life, and says that although about 70 people graduated with her, the schools have no budget to pay these teachers and so most do not go on to teach in public schools.  

In order to try to teach at least once in every grade, the teacher negotiates for classroom time with regular subject teachers; this often results in her teaching Family Life after official school hours are over or occasionally filling in with a Family Life lesson when a teacher is absent.  She also reported that she pays out-of-pocket for all her teaching materials, as there are no funds allocated by the Ministry of Education to buy supplies.  During her travels abroad, she said, she tries to find materials that are not common in Poland – such as a Brazilian brochure about how to avoid HIV/AIDS – in order to show her students that “yes, we are Catholic, but there are also other ways of doing things.”   

A staunch supporter of sex education, the teacher said she tries to at least teach contraceptive methods, both natural and modern, in the limited time she has with students.  Her motivation comes partly from students who visit her privately and ask about misinformation they have received via friends, media, or other classes. One student, for example, inquired if hormonal contraceptives cause girls to grow hair everywhere. Her overall goal for the classes, she says, is to make sure “students do not make stupid mistakes choosing a partner and that girls are aware of their rights and ability to choose, and to protect girls from unwanted pregnancy and all the children from disease and illness.”  Personally, she says she feels no pressure from the Catholic Church, but does respect the Church’s interpretation of Family Life and communicates this to students. The teacher proudly informs us that there has not been a single unwanted pregnancy at her school since she began teaching there some ten years ago.  She feels her school offers her a “good atmosphere” in which to teach.  “What I teach is tolerated here, although not supported,” the teacher explained.   

Recent Developments – Violations of Rights and Freedoms

Recently in Poland, the conservative ruling Law and Justice Party (PIS) has taken extreme stances on aspects of sex education which seem to endanger, if not outright violate, a most basic tenet of democracy and human rights: freedom of speech.  These instances also illustrate the danger of misinformation or non-information with regard to sex education, the unhealthy and dangerous circumstances it can create for young people, and the myriad of human rights it endangers.  

The Family Life teacher with whom we spoke described her students’ parents’ reaction to a leaflet describing ways of contracting HIV/AIDS:  “They called it pornography,” she reported.   The teacher faced some reprimand from the school administration but continued teaching her regular classes, except for the leaflet, without other repercussions.  The same teacher had wished to invite representatives from the Lambda Foundation, a non-governmental organization that works with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transsexual (LGBT) issues, to address her Family Life classes, but had second thoughts after hearing about a situation at a different high school.  Students there had organized a speaker from Lambda to speak with their class, but were denied the ability to carry through with their plans after teachers and the principal banned the representative from coming to the school. The Family Life teacher explained that after this incident, she does not plan to invite Lambda at this point in time.

Government limitations on sex education materials exist as another example of how basic freedoms and rights are put into jeopardy because of the current curriculum and political atmosphere.  Minister of Education Roman Giertych, from the League of Polish Families Party (LPR), for instance, has become well-known for his views on what Family Life education should and should not include.  He recently dismissed the director of the Teacher’s Improvement Center, Mirosław Sielatycki, for translating the teacher’s manual “Compass” into Polish.  The manual, edited by the Council of Europe, discussed human rights and, in one section, suggested that teachers discuss openly the problem of the right of gays and lesbians to adopt children, as well as inviting some LGBT rights organizations to speak in classrooms.  In addition to firing Sielatycki, Minister Giertych says he is considering closing the Teacher’s Improvement Center, a public institution aimed at helping teachers with their professional development.  

Moreover, in March 2006, Vice-Minister Jarosław wrote an official letter to school principals warning them of the dangers of environmental and anti-war organizations for students.  Subsequently, students at a Warsaw area high school were not allowed to hold a debate on free speech and were forced to move the debate to the private university, Collegium Civitas.  During this debate, a member of the Law and Justice Party (PIS), Stanisław Piłka, declared that school is not a place to teach deviations like homosexuality, but, instead, more traditional lifestyles should be taught. He also threatened principals with dismissal if they allowed the sex education group Ponton into their schools to teach classes.

The severe curbing effect on Family Life and sex education has even reached the Ministry of Health, where Hanna Wujkowska, an advisor to the Prime Minister, has proposed a natural-methods-only contraceptive curriculum for Family Life classes.  The aim of the program is to promote natural methods of family planning among students, and prohibits teaching of other contraceptive methods.  Nevertheless, a recent front-page headline on the Polish daily “Dziennik” declared, “Sexual Revolution in Our Schools” in large bold type, followed by a story about the natural-methods proposition.   

A teacher unable to distribute vital information about HIV/AIDS, a human rights organization banned from public schools, students prohibited to discuss free speech in their high school, a professional fired for doing his job, and threats of dismissal for principals who allow free speech in their schools: all are recent examples of the extent to which the Polish government has limited basic human rights like freedom of speech.  With this extensive evidence, it becomes clear how the government has greatly endangered or outright violated various sexual and reproductive rights, such as the right to obtain and distribute information relating to one’s sexual and reproductive health.  

Intersections of the Political and Religious

While the current political climate in Poland is very conservative, the law which mandates Family Life classes stagnated in Parliament for ten years, during both liberal and conservative political periods.  Professor Izdebski considers the right more honest than the left, he says, because the left breaks the promises they made relating to Family Life, whereas the right makes no promises and accordingly delivers nothing.  Because matters relating to sex, and therefore to sexual and reproductive rights, are viewed by most Poles as part of the private sphere of the household, politicians from the left and the right are reluctant to bring these issues out into the public sphere through legislation.  “Both the left and right—they hate the subject of sex,”  the teacher of Family Life opined. Having been in her teaching position for over ten years, she had received no more funding or scheduled time from leftist governments than from rightist ones.  

Professor Środa has an explanation for the reluctance of the government to install real sex educaton: Poland’s low population growth rate. The emphasis on familial roles, expectations, and responsibilities and lack of public discussion about contraceptives and alternative lifestyles make evident a distinctly pro-natalist policy, she argues. The vision of the traditional Catholic family is clear in most Family Life-related textbooks and curricula; even the name itself conjures not STDs and contraceptives, but babies and parenting. However, because the current curriculum, in her opinion, limits the life choices of women, “the policy will have no demographic effect and is anti-women,” Środa states unequivocally.   

In terms of religion, the dominance of Catholicism within many aspects of Polish society presents another set of unique and difficult circumstances in which human rights must be addressed. With 95 per cent of the Polish population declaring themselves Catholic , the human rights with which the Catholic Church takes issue—such as sexual and reproductive rights—are not particularly recognized or well-guarded in Poland.  While the extensive role Catholicism plays within Poland can often seem a challenge to guaranteeing such human rights as sexual and reproductive ones, many people view the Church as promoting a distinct culture of human rights itself.  Seeing the Church as a help and not as a hindrance towards ensuring human rights is a common position of the Polish people, and therefore explains some cultural attitudes that favor Church policy.   

While Środa sees a pro-natalist policy in the emphasis of Family Life education on families and neglect of health and contraceptive information, Father Mogielski sees lessons on universal values like love and family, and how sex is a part of the sacred union of marriage.  The influence of the Church, whether official or unofficial, is deep and omnipresent, say Lew-Starowicz, Izdebski, and Środa. It’s clear that the family-friendly and sex-negative lessons instilled in most Family Life classes are reflective of a traditional Catholic family lifestyle, and that the government isn’t afraid to restrict information on alternative lifestyles, modern contraceptives, and STDs – all taboo within the Catholic Church.

Concluding Thoughts 

When Father Mogielski teaches that condoms are a barrier to partner unity and love, he acts in accordance with his perception of universal values and therefore delivers an objective lesson that he believes will aid his students in making responsible and healthy choices. When Dr. Lew-Starowicz advocates for complete information on contraceptives in Family Life classes, he acts in accordance with his view that it is scientifically proven that such information reduces the risk of unintended pregnancy and physical illness, therefore allowing students to take control of their bodies and lead healthier lives. The difference of opinion is clear; the effect on Polish youth is substantially less so.  

Based on the experiences and observations of our interviewees, we see religious and political influence playing an extensive and largely detrimental role towards the guarantee of sexual and reproductive rights.  Restricting Family Life classes to only include information on values and family—eschewing vital topics like STD transmission, contraception, and homosexuality—endangers the right of Polish students to make informed choices related to their sexual and reproductive health. Likewise, the politicization of the biological subject matter advocated by Lew-Starowicz, Izdebski, and Środa, from both sides, imperils the debate as it makes subjective the essential scientific information needed by Polish youth.  

With the situation of Family Life unlikely to change in the near future, it is essential for Polish NGOs, researchers, and academics to continue their advocacy for complete sex education and their monitoring of actions taken by the Polish government which amount to blatant violations of human rights. Involved, active monitoring of the Polish government by regional bodies such as the Council of Europe and the EU exists as another essential element of ensuring Polish sexual and reproductive rights. As Poland’s democracy matures, and the effects of globalization begin to become even more entrenched in Polish society, both national and regional governmental, non-governmental, and academic organizations must work to ensure all human rights, rather than only those endorsed by the Catholic Church or the federal administration, are delivered to the people of Poland.

 

References

Anonymous – school psychologist and counselor, teacher of Preparation for Family Life classes at a Warsaw high school

Prof. Zbigniew Izdebski – sexologist, family advisor, activist in TRR (Towarzystwo Rozwoju Rodziny), author of reports on sexuality in Poland 

Father Marcin Mogielski – academic priest, Dominican order, organizes “Never Enough About Love” family life classes for youth at his church

Prof. Zbigniew Lew-Starowicz – psychiatrist, specialist in sexology, since 1994 state’s specialist in sexology

Magdalena Środa – professor of Ethics and Philosphy at Warsaw University, feminist activist, 2004-2005 Government’s Plenipotentiary for the Equal Status of Women and Men??

Artur Górski – politician, member of Law and Justice Party (PiS), member of Parliamentary Commission for Education, Science and Youth

Magda, Piotr, Anna, Grzegorz, Kasia – students at Warsaw area high schools

Works Cited:

Center for Reproductive Rights.  “Laws and Policies Affecting Their Reproductive Lives”. www.reproductiverights.org.  

Forrest, Simon, and Annabel Kanabus.  “Sex Education That Works”.  www.avert.org/sexedu.htm.  19 August 2005.

Ministry of Education, Sport, and Youth.  “Family Planning, Human Fetus Protection and Permissible Conditions of Abortion Law”.  26 February 2002.

Dziennik. “Rewolucja seksualna w przedszkolach i szkolach”.  22 June 2006.

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