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No Sex Please, We’re Brazilian

. Feb 05, 2020
Damares Alves no sex policies Human Rights Minister Damares Alves (L) and President Jair Bolsonaro. Photo: Carolina Antunes/PR

In 2004 teen comedy classic Mean Girls, the fictional American high school students are told by their eminently unqualified sex education teacher Coach Carr simply to “not have sex, because you will get pregnant and die.” Away from the silver screen, in 2020, Brazil’s Human Rights Ministry appears to have taken a leaf from the Hollywood screenplay and has launched a campaign promising to have the solution to combat teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases: kids, just don’t have sex.

The cabinet ministry is using the advent of the National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Week—a newly instated commemoration to take place every year at the beginning of February—to promote a nationwide marketing campaign on the “benefits” of sexual abstinence. The idea is that abstinence is the most effective method of contraception, encouraging young people to delay their forays into sexual activity and thus avoid all possibility of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection.

</p> <p>The ministry&#8217;s plan is to develop a series of public policies on the matter of abstinence and produce educational textbooks to be used in schools. Tests will begin in the poor Northeast and North regions of the country, choosing three cities to serve as pilot projects in the so-called National Plan to Prevent Early Sexual Initiation. The propaganda to be disclosed by the program bears the slogans &#8220;Adolescence First, Pregnancy Later,&#8221; and &#8220;There&#8217;s a time for everything.&#8221;</p> <p>The program is the latest brainchild of Brazil&#8217;s Minister of Women, Family, and Human Rights, lawyer and <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2018/12/07/damares-alves-minister-human-rights/">Evangelical preacher Damares Alves</a>. Since she was nominated for the seat in President Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s cabinet, many of her public declarations have followed an ultra-conservative religious slant, often <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-weekly/2019/10/14/brazil-conservative-political-action-conference-cpac/">imported from the U.S.</a>—as is the case of the promotion of chastity as sexual contraception, which is reminiscent of similar American Evangelical programs.</p> <h2>Abstinence, is it the best contraceptive?</h2> <p>While the basic logic clearly stands to reason—if one abstains from sexual intercourse, one will not get pregnant nor contract a sexually transmitted disease—the effectiveness of abstinence campaigns as public health initiatives has been criticized by a number of specialists and researchers.&nbsp;</p> <p>An <a href="https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304896">article</a> from last year in the American Journal of Public Health analyzed U.S.&#8217; teen pregnancy figures between 1998 and 2016 related to government-funded abstinence programs and found that all of the investment in these policies did not lead to a decrease in adolescent pregnancy rates. In fact, it was shown to have <em>increased</em> the incidence of teenage pregnancy in some conservative states.&nbsp;</p> <p>The conclusion of the study was that sexuality education was much more effective in reducing the rate of these early births.</p> <p>In many developing regions, however, abstinence-driven policies have been linked to a reduction in HIV cases—<em>as long as </em>they are combined with awareness about contraceptive methods. The so-called ABC strategy (Abstinence, Being faithful, using Condoms) is largely credited with Uganda&#8217;s success in reducing HIV infections.</p> <p>Similar positive results have been <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1564179/#__ffn_sectitle">reported</a> in Zambia, Kenya, and Thailand.</p> <p>The key, however, is that the strategy does not rely exclusively on abstinence. &#8220;The three components (abstinence, fidelity, condom use) are closely intertwined, complementing each other in much the same way that all the critical components of a car need to be in place for it to move. None is sufficient on its own and each has contributed to the larger success that is reflected in the form of demonstrable declines in HIV incidence and prevalence,&#8221; <a href="https://pmj.bmj.com/content/81/960/625.full">wrote</a> Samuel I. Okware, director general at Uganda&#8217;s National Health Research Organization.</p> <h2>Teen pregnancy and STIs in Brazil</h2> <p>According to the World Health Organization, Brazil&#8217;s adolescent pregnancy rates are above the global and continental averages, with 68.4 births for every 1,000 teenage girls aged 15 to 19. The average around the world stands at 46, and Latin America and the Caribbean has 65.5 births per 1,000 adolescent girls.</p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/1342001"></div><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script> <p>As far as sexually transmitted diseases are concerned, Brazil is facing a new challenge in its fight against HIV/Aids, with cases among young men increasing as overall rates go down. The country became a worldwide reference in <a href="https://brazilian.report/society/2019/12/01/brazil-new-challenge-against-hiv-aids-2020/">combating Aids</a> from the 1990s onwards, offering free treatment to HIV-positive patients on its public health system, and it is still the biggest country to do so.</p> <p>However, the fear is that younger generations—who did not live through the horrors of the HIV/Aids outbreak in the 1980s—are no longer taking the necessary precautions to avoid the illness.&nbsp;</p> <p>Other STIs are also on the rise in Brazil, namely syphilis and hepatitis A, B, C, and D. In 2018, the country had 75.8 cases of syphilis per 100,000 inhabitants, up from 59.1 cases just one year earlier.</p> <p>Speaking to the <em>BBC</em>, Mauro Romero Leal Passos, coordinator of the STI department at the Federal Fluminense University, suggested that part of the rise is down to the fact that many of these diseases are initially symptomless. &#8220;Because they don&#8217;t feel anything, people don&#8217;t go to the doctor and don&#8217;t find out that they are infected,&#8221; he said. &#8220;Without knowing, the chance of transmitting the virus or bacteria to a partner through unprotected sex is much higher.&#8221;</p> <h2>Rift with the Health Ministry</h2> <p>Crucially, Damares Alves&#8217; plan for a National Plan to Prevent Early Sexual Initiation will actually be bankrolled by the Health Ministry, headed by orthopedic physician Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who said that the government &#8220;cannot minimize the discussion and only emphasize [sexual abstinence].&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;It&#8217;s a complex problem,&#8221; he said. &#8220;I don&#8217;t see a problem with campaigns to talk about [delaying sexual initiation], but it can&#8217;t be our only policy. It can&#8217;t be the only policy and it can&#8217;t be the main policy.&#8221;</p> <p>The two cabinet ministers have butted heads on two other aspects of the program, namely the target audience and the secularity of the policy. Ms. Alves&#8217; Human Rights Ministry wants the plan to focus on children aged 12 and up, while the Health Ministry intends to limit it to those aged 15 and over.</p> <p>Furthermore, studies used by the Human Rights Ministry to defend the promotion of abstinence often go on religious tangents, highlighting that teen pregnancy distances adolescents from their faith and their family. Health Minister Mandetta, on the other hand, wants to maintain the program as secular as possible.

 
Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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