Latin America’s battle over “gender ideology”
Sep 30th 2017 - Print edition
THIS year Peru introduced a new curriculum for its primary schools as part of an effort to improve education. One of the new curriculum’s principles is that boys and girls have the same right to education. It notes that “while what we consider to be ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ is based on biological-sexual differences, these are roles which we construct from day to day, in our interactions.” And “some of those [socially] assigned roles” lead to girls dropping out of school to take on domestic chores.
To many people, this is a statement of the obvious. Yet it provided fuel for a growing campaign that holds that there is a conspiracy in Latin America, known as “gender ideology”, whose aim is to feminise boys, turn girls into lesbians and destroy the family. This might come as news to many in a region notorious for machismo. Nevertheless, the campaigners are scoring victories.
In March a group called Con Mis Hijos No Te Metas (“don’t mess with my kids”) held a big march in Lima against the new curriculum and against Marilú Martens, the education minister implementing it. Last month they got their way. Ms Martens was censured by the conservative opposition majority in congress, ostensibly over her mishandling of a teachers’ strike. Her replacement, Idel Vexler, favours withdrawing references to gender.
In Colombia last year Gina Parody, who is openly lesbian, similarly lost her job as education minister after her ministry had produced a manual to help schools comply with a constitutional court ruling that barred discrimination by sexual orientation. One reason why a peace agreement between the government and the FARC, a left-wing guerrilla group, was narrowly rejected in a referendum last October was because the same campaigners objected to its use of the term “gender equity”.
In Mexico opponents of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s proposal to legalise gay marriage organised nationwide demonstrations last year. A campaign bus has been touring the country under the slogan of Con Mis Hijos No Se Metan (“no one messes with my kids”). Similar protests have taken place in Europe, for example in France and Poland.
Behind these events lies a long-standing campaign by conservatives in the Catholic church against feminism, triggered by a UN Convention against Discrimination of 1979. This campaign has widened and gained energy from opposition to gay marriage and other gay rights, a cause that appeals to evangelical Protestants as well as Catholics. “These people try to establish a moral panic and the idea that the family is dissolving, which has no basis in fact,” says Maxine Molyneux, a sociologist of Latin America at University College London.
Gender is not an “ideology”, but it is a lightning rod. Feminists argue that the church’s representation of women—as morally superior but physically subservient to the dominant male—has contributed to injustice and violence. Nevertheless, in recent decades Latin American societies have become a bit more secular, women have become less subordinated and homosexuality is more tolerated.
Whatever the church’s teaching, contraception is widely used and so, perhaps surprisingly, is the “morning-after” pill. Women have far fewer children than in the past. There has been timid liberalisation of strict abortion laws in some countries. In August Chile’s constitutional court upheld a law allowing terminations in the case of rape or fetal deformation, or if the mother’s life is endangered. Gay marriage is legal in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and some parts of Mexico. On average, in 2012 Latin American women were paid only 84% as much as men with similar qualifications, but that is an increase of 12 percentage points since 1994.
These advances are incomplete and contested. Studies find that around a third of Latin American women suffer domestic or sexual violence. Murders of gays in Brazil are rising. Although many countries include sex education in the school curriculum, in practice it is often not provided. In poorer rural areas, contraception can be hard to find.
Ms Molyneux notes that a new generation of feminists have taken to the streets in countries like Argentina to denounce violence against women and to demand legal abortion. But it is the conservatives who seem to have the initiative. In a region still struggling against deep inequalities, that is worrying. As Ms Martens wrote in El Comercio, a newspaper, violence and discrimination against women originate “in subconscious prejudices”. The way to eradicate those prejudices, she went on, is through education. That is why this battle matters so much.