ZAGREB | In January, Croatian schools began teaching issues of sexuality and gender under a new health education program, but a bitter fight between the Catholic Church and the government over the initiative rages on.
On 6 February, the sides faced off at a session of parliament’s human rights committee proposed by the Croatian Bishops’ Conference. Defending the government program, gynecologist Dubravko Lepusic said youth need sexual education early “to protect themselves” because they become sexually active as teenagers. Marijana Petir, a conservative lawmaker with close ties to the church, countered that the initiative, which also touches on homosexuality, undermines family values and vowed to abolish it.
The exchange follows months of acrimony between, on the one side, the Catholic Church, allied with conservative lawmakers and especially the opposition Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), and, on the other, the Social Democratic coalition of Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic in arguably the fiercest anti-government religious campaign in Croatia’s history. It is a fight that has seen clergy and theologians decry “lesbians and fags” and call for Milanovic’s ouster despite sizeable public support for the education initiative.
THE BATTLE BEGINS
Presented publicly in December before the January launch, the so-called Health Education Curriculum is a pet project of Zeljko Jovanovic, minister of Science, Education and Sport, who wants to encourage critical thinking and independent decision-making. Split into four sections, the program covers everything from healthy lifestyle choices to addiction over 12 hours of workshops and discussions per year in Croatia’s 1,300 primary and secondary schools. Two hours go to sexual education, “Section Four.”
Schools have long addressed similar topics in informal, optional question-and-answer-style sessions between students and teachers, but the new program is structured and obligatory. Ljubica Ljubojevic, a secondary school principal in Osijek, eastern Croatia, said students enjoy the health lessons, which incorporate discussion topics and reading lists developed by the State Education and Teacher Training Agency. For sexual education, she said, gynecologists and other health-care experts are often brought in.
These lessons begin in the third grade, focusing on puberty, gender roles, and societal expectations regarding family and sexual orientation. At 15, students discuss issues like contraception and sex in the media, while lifestyle choices, health care, stereotypes and discrimination, common sexual problems, and parenting and the family follow two years later. The lessons teach gender and sexual equality.
“Children become interested in sexuality early,” said Lara Cakic, a scholar and lecturer in the University of Osijek’s teacher education department. “They start to talk about it at 7, and interest increases through the age of 13. So it is necessary to tell children what is happening” to them and their peers, mentally and physically.
Some 42 percent of Croatians support the health education program, according to an HRT public television survey, with 22 percent opposed. And 56 percent say they don’t want the church meddling in education.
Nevertheless, religious leaders have railed against the health program, the sexual education module in particular, from the start. In early December, Josip Bozanic, the archbishop of Zagreb, said it would undermine the beliefs of religious parents and the Catholic Church in Croatia.
“This kind of health education is dangerous,” he said, adding that teaching gender and sexual equality, for instance, destroys the essence of what it is to be human.
Within days, an opposition leaflet began appearing in churches, public hearings, and religious gatherings – Section Four would promote pornography and the “disease” of homosexuality while undermining traditional values.
“Your child will learn that the sexual act is completely normal for a 15 year old,” the leaflet warned parents, “and about a type of sexual relationship that in itself has no meaning and no connection to universal human values such as love and faithfulness.”
Firing back, Minister Jovanovic said, “The leaflet is full of falsehoods, misinformation, and malicious data that completely distort the truth about health education.” The program aims to help youngsters live healthy, longer lives, he added.
The church and its allies didn’t back down. At a January religious meeting in Zagreb, Deputy Bishop Valentin Pozaic said the “baleful” program was a tool of indoctrination. He called for Milanovic’s ouster, comparing his government to the Nazis and Communists. In a newspaper interview, a prominent theologian said “lesbians and fags will destroy Croatia.” And the HDZ invited Judith Reisman, a controversial U.S. writer who advocates abstinence-only sex education, to address parliament late last month.
“If you start with this program, you will see a large increase in sexually transmitted diseases and abortions among children, because children mimic what they see,” she told HDZ and several other conservative legislators, all other parties having boycotted the presentation.
A representative of the Catholic Church did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
A DETERMINED OPPOSITION
The scholar Cakic said she is shocked by the church’s campaign.
“Education should be based on scientific facts, not traditional and religious misconceptions and myths,” she said. “Unfortunately, Croatia is witnessing a debate in which the Catholic Church and its associates are trying to take advantage of its social and political influence to impose just such unscientific opinions. If the education system relents, it would be to the detriment of children and parents, and finally the family.”
Marina Trbus, program coordinator of the Step-by-Step parents association, also said the initiative is important because sexual education is weak in socially conservative Croatia, especially regarding abuse. Studies show that nearly 20 percent of children are victimized but that most cases go unreported, she said.
“Sexual abuse, child pregnancy, and other problems show that our society mishandles the sexual development of children,” she said. “This program is just a beginning, but it is an important step forward.”
In the past, Step-by-Step has organized related workshops for young people. Attendees said they wanted to learn more, according to Trbus.
“In this whole back and forth on the health education program, nobody asked children what they think, what their problems and difficulties are during childhood,” she said.
Antonella Nizetic-Capkovic of the State Education and Teacher Training Agency said it’s too early to talk about impact but that so far the health education program is moving along “without a hitch” despite the church’s opposition. For his part, Prime Minister Milanovic wants officials to stay out of the public row.
“I appeal to you ministers not to comment on the health education program anymore,” he said at a January government meeting. “We are doing our job and believe it is the right thing.”
But Zelimir Puljic, president of the Croatian Bishops’ Conference, says the church will fight on.
“[We] are not against the health education program, but cannot and will not give up on the truth about … sexuality, marriage, and the family, which is being presented in a distorted and incomplete way by Section Four,” he said in a 2 February interview with Croatian media.
And the church’s allies the HDZ appear equally committed to abolishing what they see as a threat to the youth of Croatia.
“It is not just an attack on the church,” HDZ President Tomislav Karamarko said at a 9 February party conference, “but also an attack on our children.”