Discussed behind closed doors.
Poland's fear and implications of lacking sex education.
Paulina Utnik, City, University of London
Poland’s rich and complex history influences its deep-rooted traditions, making it hard to shake things up in an era of modernisation and changing beliefs. The country’s highly devoted religious population seems to be slow in adapting to changing attitudes. With many young people leaving the country, the ageing demographic and right-wing government, many issues such as abortion, LGBT+ rights and sex education are being questioned.
Catholicism and the state are allegedly two separate concepts. Yet, only in theory as they are usually indistinguishable. With many classrooms having a cross on the wall, state schools commonly teach in a manner tainted by religion. Children are taught about Catholicism creating the foundation of their education alongside the alphabet and basic mathematics. According to the Ministry of National Education, schools must organise two religion (meaning Catholicism) classes per week. However, CBOS research states that there is a 25% drop in students attending religion classes between 2010-2018. While religious freedom means that students are not obligated to attend these classes, it fails to take into account how religion might enter the curriculum elsewhere.
Life in a family
In theory, Health and Social classes feature in the Polish curriculum and provide discussions on eg. sex education, sex/gender orientation, puberty and menstruation. Yet, Polityka reporter Jan Hartman states that it is the religion which is preventing school bodies from doing justice in teaching sex education. In Poland, these classes are censored, preventing vital understanding of both the physical and emotional meaning of sex.
As of now, sex education is expected to follow the structure of the ‘WDZ’ Education (literally ‘Upbringing to Life in a Family’) document which forms the curriculum and serves as a guidebook to teachers. It propagates the idea that the foundations of such education have to be taught at home, with the school system only serving to fill in the gaps. Professor Krystyna Ostrowska, the main writer of the programme, states that it should include ‘knowledge of biology, the human psyche, social behaviour and religion as the four realities that make up a human being.’ Beside tainting teaching with religious beliefs, among the twelve core values discussed in the report, the first three are - the dignity of the person, the sanctity of human life and the central role of a family based on marriage. The latter two unapologetically taking a religion centric stance on social issues such as abortion and contraception, taught in the curriculum.
Poland's right-wing government has taken the issue further by equating sex education to “paedophilia”, stating that it promotes underage sexual activity and is a danger to the society. PiS is backed by organisations like Fundacja Pro and the Ordo Iuris Institute which aims to challenge ‘radical ideologies that aggressively question the existing social order.’ They disregard the country’s need for enlightenment and calls for the normalisation of sex, which reflects the religious beliefs of their voters, according to Ewa Marciniak.
Meanwhile, the EU has been critical of the bill, calling for its reconsideration and for Poland to provide “young people with access to comprehensive sex education.” Protestors also called for the reform of the national curriculum, with thorough sex education becoming a permanent feature in schools nationwide. The Sexological Society and The National Women's Strike, which recently received the European Economic and Social Committee Award for their work and participation in the Black Protests against the Abortion Bill, have also been highly critical of the potential law.
Additionally, a lack of thorough sex education goes against the World Health Organisation standards for Europe. Despite this, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczyński stance remains that sex education will sexualise children, with sex being a ‘topic to discuss behind closed doors.’ This will have dire consequences on children nationally.
Unhelpful law and ostracism
Sex Education provides much more than a discussion of the somatic act. When taught correctly, it provides children with invaluable knowledge about human anatomy, consent, STDs and pregnancy. It gives all genders a chance to learn about menstruation and puberty. It teaches young people about how to identify abusive relations or discuss sexual orientation. Sex education takes the shame out of discussions about our bodies and normalises much more than just the physical deed.
The Netherlands has adapted ‘sex positive’ education for over a decade and coincidentally boasts among the lowest teenage pregnancy rates and highest contraceptive use in Europe. Reporter Tony Sheldon suggests public and prominent support for sex education helps parents to accept their children’s sexuality and normalise talking about relationships. While the comprehensive education on the spread of STDs will help in understanding how to contain the virus’ and the importance of testing. Especially, according to the National Institute of Health and Hygiene, Poland features among the European countries with rising STD levels. While the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health claims that abstinence-only sex education has no positive correlation on teenage pregnancy and abortion rates. And a study by The Lancelet actually suggests that restrictive laws on abortion do not reduce abortion rates, but rather push women towards unsafe terminations instead.
The percentage of teenage mothers in Poland has dropped over the last decade by 37%, it still remains one of the highest in Europe. Irene Donadio, the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network (IPFF) spokesperson said the trend is “quite worrying in terms of their general pattern around democracy and human rights, women’s sexual reproduction rights in particular.” Teenage pregnancies and lack of sex education can lead to ostracism, depression and even violence.
Fear of sex education
Education of any capacity prepares for the reality of life, including sex. The idea that is provided with the knowledge to the same standard as other European countries can be detrimental to a child is a flawed notion. Reporter Ewa Siedlecka claims that Poles fear that sex education will alter traditions such as the family unit and religious celebrations, yet these fears are redundant. Traditions and customs cannot be protected by ignorance; those who deserve to stay will remain ingrained in the lives of the people regardless.
With Poland experiencing a period of alt-right conservatism, education has taken a major hit. Yet with organisations such as the Sexological Society and The National Women's Strike both protesting for the right to education and many teachers still providing knowledge to their pupils, despite the potential punishment, there is still hope.
There is visible disinterest in religion which is seen through students avoiding classes. To change this, the Church and government would have to alter their agenda and embrace modern education styles. And, until there is thorough sex education in schools, some responsibility falls on individual adults, charities and families to ensure children have access to support and knowledge, be that anonymously online or in person.