A high school student gets pregnant. To educate the other students, the school brings them an elderly doctor who wears an apron with reproductive organs drawn on it. Why is sex education done this way in the Romanian schools? We surveyed teenagers from several counties in Romania, a country where sex education is still optional. Our research shows why it is time to make it compulsory in the country’s schools.

In Vaslui County, only one public health unit performs abortions on demand: Elena Beldiman Municipal Hospital in Bârlad. Between 2015 and 2021, the doctors from that hospital performed 3,203 on-demand abortions. In 458 cases, the girls were under the age of 19. This means that for every seven women who requested a termination of pregnancy in the health unit in Vaslui, one was a teenager.

The situation at the hospital in Bârlad is not an exception. It is statistically relevant at a national level, as shown by data from the National Institute of Public Health (INSP), county directorates of public health (DSPs) and hundreds of public hospitals.

In the same period, 2015-2021, on demand abortions for the age categories under 15 and 15-19 years, represented 17% of the total number of voluntary terminations of pregnancy at Cluj County Emergency Hospital, 10% of those performed at Constanța County Emergency Hospital and 8% from those performed at Buftea Maternity Hospital.

At European Union level, Romania occupies one of the leading positions in statistics for underage mothers, as well as for abortions performed on minors. In order to observe the phenomenon, it is enough to cross-examine the data sets that the Romanian state processes annually. Yet the central and local administrations responsible for this do almost nothing to monitor or prevent it. Despite clear statistics, several public actors are pushing against the implementation of educational programs and services to limit child pregnancies (and their related effects).

Photo: Octav Ganea / Inquam Photos

Faced with pressure from conservative groups and religious institutions (among which the Romanian Orthodox Church is the most vocal), the Romanian state has been paralysed for years when it comes to sex education in schools or reproductive health services provided to young people.

Beyond the legal framing, abortion on demand also requires a public discussion about medical services (including the transfer from the public to the private sector). But it also means a discussion about access to contraception and education.

In this article, we set out to address the issue of sex education because it is among the causes contributing to the systemic failure of sexual health and reproductive rights policies in Romania.

The topic is controversial, due to the systematic manipulation of this subject by church leaders and influential pressure groups. They argue against sex education in schools, because they believe this destroys the th innocence of children and encourages them to masturbate early. Yet the investigation carried out by the Decree Chronicles shows that European countries which have been teaching sex education in schools for decades do not see their adolescents adopting more permissive or promiscous behaviour. 

The worrying numbers of teenage pregnancies in Romania is the best argument for introducing compulsory sex education in schools.

There is also no objective data to show that sex education has a negative effect on the minds of young people, influencing them towards anti-social activity.

The School that Does Not Inform

The School that Does Not Inform

Most often, it is adults who talk about sex education, including parents, politicians, and civic or religious associations. So we chose to talk directly to the students. At the end of summer, I sent a series of questions to hundreds of students and alumni from 22 counties in Romania. 157 people answered in full.

78% of respondents want sex education to be a compulsory subject. The same number of students did not attend the optional sex education course which would have provided them with information about sex, pregnancy and abortion. 87% of them have never heard of Decree 770 of October 1966, which criminalized on-demand abortions during the Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, and lasted until the end of 1989. Such things are not taught in our history textbooks.

Romanian students finish school without any concrete information about their own reproductive and sexual health, as well as no socio-historical information about the fate of a society that bans abortions, limits contraception and turns sexuality into a taboo subject.

Beyond percentages, the answers we received from students show the failure of the Romanian state to provide an education attuned to the needs of society and of the voting, tax-paying citizens of tomorrow. 

This failure does not only stem from the fact that sex education is not yet a compulsory subject in Romanian schools, but also from the limited way in which we understand sex education and its role. The mere teaching of such notions in schools does not mean that the state has done its job. Sex education also means monitoring socio-sanitary indicators, specialized research in the field of reproduction, and a system of related services.

For now, the discussion about sex education in Romania uses criteria that don’t even belong in the conversation. Sex education is not the subject that teaches 4-5 year old children to masturbate. Sex education is not the method by which a heterosexual person becomes homosexual. Sex education is by no means synonymous with debauchery.

All these deficiencies of understanding and approach (which are enabled by the current Romanian education system) have a series of devastating social consequences: underage mothers, abortions instead of contraceptives, human trafficking, and sexual abuse of underage victims.

Sex Education: Not Compulsory

Sex Education: Not Compulsory

In Romania, sex education is a component of the optional Health Education course, introduced by the Ministry of Education in the school curriculum in 2004.

At that time, the ministry also developed a school curriculum offer. According to this educational plan, topics related to sex education should be addressed in primary, secondary, and high school.

Click on the image to see the full document.

The use of the verb “should” is not accidental.  A  HotNews article from June 2021 showed that, on paper, 148,500 students were taking the optional Health Education course. That is 7% of the students. 

The phrase “on paper” is not used by chance either. We asked the students approached during our investigation if they took this course, and we asked those who answered affirmatively to tell us what they learned.

Optional and Incomplete

Optional and Incomplete

Of the 157 students who responded to our questionnaire, 123 did not take the Health Education course.

Of the 34 who attended the optional course in school, not even one of them studied the subject during the three cycles of education (primary, secondary and high school). If we take into account how the curriculum is structured, we come to the conclusion that none of them were taught the entire course. 

“I studied it in grades 5-7, with my head teacher, who was also a biology teacher. Most information I received was about preparation before sex. About taking all the safety precautions before doing it. That is, for example, to get tested and make sure you don’t have a disease that you can transmit to your partner through sex, or to prevent an unwanted pregnancy using protection.”

In general, the answers provided show that the optional course was taught by biology teachers, head teachers or school nurses.

“I took the 12th grade Health Education course. Regarding the type of information received, the discussion topics were based on hygiene, healthy eating, the role of physical education in one’s development, and various psychological and personality tests.”

“We did four hours of Sex Education in the 9th grade, with a teacher from the Ministry, although our head teacher was a biology teacher. The school principal was completely against distributing condoms during class.”

“We had a few Health Education hours in the 3rd and 4th grades and we were told about hygiene and menstruation (in the case of girls) and we had another hour about hygiene in the 9th grade. The school nurse was the one who did the presentations.”

Education by Abstinence

Education by Abstinence

In 7th grade biology, a class on the human reproductive function could have been another opportunity to learn about the topic. Here, students would have learned about the changes brought about by puberty, the human reproductive system, conception and contraception.

Once more, the use of the verb “could have” is not accidental.

I asked the students who did not take the Health Education course if  they received information about sex education from other courses. 40 out of 123 received them in biology class. But here too it is important to know the information presented to the students.

“There was no talk of sex education in high school, except for biology class, where we were told: ‘wear a condom if you really want to do this!’.”

“In biology, in 7th grade, the boys were called to one class and the girls to another. We were given some sheets to fill out, with information from the Internet, and then the teacher left the classroom.”

“I received some information from the biology teacher. All she told us was: ‘It’s not good to start your sex life at this age because it’s an explosion of hormones. But when you do, use a condom’. I found the rest of the information on the internet.”

“2017, 7th grade, biology teacher. He told us that following unprotected contact between a man and a woman:> sperm from the man + egg from the woman -> child.”

Only one student who mentioned biology class as a source of information said he was satisfied with what he found out and the way the information was presented to him.

Did such information reach those for whom the Health Education course and the biology class were not an option?

“We received some information in the 5th grade, where we had a few hours with the head teacher in which the psychology teacher allowed us to ask her questions about sexuality. It wasn’t nearly enough. Honestly, I don’t remember one useful thing I learned then. Also, in secondary school, we had a program started by a menstrual pad  company that explained a few things about menstruation. That is where I can say that I received some useful information.”

“In 11th grade, a lady whose name I don’t know anymore came to the school’s festive hall. She wasn’t a teacher, she had come as a guest, to talk to us. The information we received was strictly related to abstinence, not education. We were told that it is best simply to abstain and abortions were presented to us in a rather fanatical way. Obviously, as we were almost 18, I already knew all the information, and everything that lady tried to tell us was only something me and my colleagues made fun of.”

“In 10th and 11th grade, a doctor came to our school to talk to us, because a girl a year older than me had become pregnant. The teachers found out and called the school doctor to talk to us about protection. A lady over 60 put on an apron with the internal reproductive organs drawn on it. It was cringe, horror.”

“In physics class. I felt uncomfortable (as did the rest of my colleagues) because the teacher was talking without being informed about pornography and sex, not about sexually transmitted diseases and other really important things. In addition, he made anti-LGBT propaganda.”

Sex Education on the Continent:
Setting Higher Standards

Sex Education on the Continent: Setting Higher Standards

The World Health Organization (WHO), through the German Federal Center for Health Education (BZgA), developed standards for sex education in Europe in 2010. It is the brochure from which some Romanian politicians collected disparate words and lines, which they reinterpreted to tell the public that the WHO demands that Romania must teach four-year-olds to masturbate. It does not say that or anything similar in any of the 63 pages of the guide.

BZgA is the specialized authority in the field of health education that operates as part of the German Federal Ministry of Health.

In response to the request of our journalistic team, BZgA stated that the institution’s measures and programs contribute to the prevention of diseases, to the improvement of early detection, as well as to the promotion of health through educational programs. As long as people are informed, they will know how to behave healthily, a statement added.

In 2018, BZgA conducted a comprehensive monitoring regarding the state of sex education in European countries.

This reported that, , unlike Romania, most European countries have made sex education compulsory in schools. In countries with a tradition in the field,there is already talk of interdisciplinary approaches. Sex education is not just an independent subject, but a subject that can be approached through many other disciplines such as religion, history, arts, civic education or physical education.

Unlike Romania, these countries also have specialized bodies in charge of monitoring and research, to see the social effects of teaching and to find out how the transmission of the notions of sex education can be improved.

Sexual Education in Religion Classes and
Students Who Develop Their Own Curricula 

Sexual Education in Religion Classes and Students Who Develop Their Own Curricula 

  • Sweden was the first European country to introduce compulsory sex education in schools. This was in 1955. Today the subject is fully integrated in the school curriculum and addressed in several other disciplines. Teachers constantly benefit from training on the matter provided by universities, municipalities or NGOs.

    Sweden monitors and evaluates the consequences of teaching this subject in order to improve the curriculum.

  • In Finland, sex education is part of the national curriculum and is integrated into various primary and secondary schools subjects. Since 2016, there has been a program developed by an NGO through which young people actively participate in the development and implementation of a new model of sex education in schools. Together with specialists in the field, secondary school students collect themes they are interested in and use them to create the content of the course.

  • In the Netherlands, school boards, together with teachers and other partners, are responsible for methods, teaching materials and curriculum development. Sex education is, for the most part, integrated into disciplines such as biology, civic education or sociology.

  • In Belgium, sex education is guaranteed through national legislation, but the responsibility for implementation lies with regional governments. Sex education in the Flanders region is compulsory for all students and usually integrated into various school subjects.

  • In Austria, sex education has been compulsory since 1970. In 2016, the Federal Center for Sex Education was created. The aim of the center is to provide and support sex education in all schools in Austria.

  • In Germany, there is a federal framework for sex education. This is compulsory, starting with primary school. Germany periodically assesses the way sex education is taught in schools through a survey. The latest data shows that 83% of young people mentioned school as the most important source of information on sex education.

    BZgA has been conducting periodic surveys on the sexuality of young people in Germany since 1980. The results of the surveys are an important source for the development of sex education and family planning measures. The latest results of the study, published recently, show that the number of young people under 17 who have started their sexual life has steadily decreased in the last decade.

    For example, in 2009, 50% of 16-year-olds had had a sexual experience, while in 2019 the percentage had dropped to 35%. The BZgA survey also shows that young people have started using more condoms and less birth control pills.

  • In Estonia, approximately 76% of young people say that school is the main source of sex education.

Between ‘How Are Babies Made’ to
ex Life After Marriage’

Between ‘How Are Babies Made’ to ‘Sex Life After Marriage’

We wanted to find out from the students we surveyed what expectations they have, or had, from their school on the topic of sex education. Firstly, 78% of the 157 respondents said they would like sex education to be compulsory and for school to be the main source of information. This is because the arguments presented by those who oppose sex education—that the topic is a personal matter and should be dealt with within the family—proves false in practice. There are few instances when young people received the information they wanted or needed from the members of their family.

30% of the 157 students did not receive any information at home. 70% say they received it, but only half of them say they considered the information sufficient.

“I received [some information], but very little. My family is very religious and considers that sex life begins only after marriage, so this is a taboo subject in my family.”

“Everything I learned came, in fact, from the mothers of my friends. Ridiculously enough, their mothers were talking to me, and my mother was talking to them.”

“I received information about abstinence from a religious aunt, through a YouTube video of an aggressive woman from America. I would have been better off without it. Otherwise nothing.”

“I haven’t received enough [information] to be sure I know everything a person my age should know. My parents didn’t talk to me about sex education, they just wanted to tell me how horrible it is to watch adult movies.”

Among the answers received and compiled by the Decree Chronicles, there are a few cases of students who declared themselves well informed and advised in the family on sex education.

“I found out how children come into the world when I was three years old and it didn’t affect me in the long run, it made me more disciplined. Over the years, my mother has been my source of information. She spoke openly to me and I still turn to her.

Without them [the parents], I would not have known about these things and I don’t want to imagine what could have happened.”

Students Request to Be Informed

Students Request to Be Informed

The experiences of European education systems that teach sex education in an integrated manner show, unequivocally, that the responsibility for correct and complete information lies with the schools. At the moment, the Romanian education system does not take on this responsibility and continues to be a poor source of information (and sometimes misinformation) for students.

“I didn’t think too much about the school doing anything [about sex education], because I got the information on my own. When I was 11, I found out about [the YouTube sex education videos] Sex vs Barza (Sex Versus The Stork) and it did me loads of good.”

“Everything I know now about sex education is from sources like YouTube, Instagram and various web pages dedicated to sex education. But we all feel a certain reluctance when it comes to information in the online environment, we are not sure whether it’s true. Personally, I have been in situations of a sexual nature where I asked myself: ‘why didn’t they tell me that in school?’

The answers received from students in regard to what they wanted to learn in school about sex education dismantle the theories that sex education is damaging for children because it teaches them to have sex.

“Although I was in one of the top high schools in my city, I had a few colleagues who were in abusive relationships. I think it would have helped to talk about this side of relationships, and about revenge porn. (…)

I think it’s important to also talk about safe masturbation, about porn sites; about the safety of sending sexually explicit messages over the Internet and generally how to be safe on the internet. About sexual orientations, about gender identity.”

The above lines are not a rare occurrence. Dozens of students mention the issues of abusive relationships, sexual abuse, and consent. It is no coincidence that students ask to be informed on these topics.

Romania occupies a leading position when it comes to underage mothers and also does not perform well in statistics related to trafficked persons. And when it comes to sexual offenses, many underage victims don’t report the abuse because they are not aware it is an abuse.

In general, the Romanian judiciary system considers that when a minor is silent about abuse this is indicative of consent. In reality, young victims are silent because they do not understand they have been abused. And they don’t understand this because neither their family, nor the school, has equipped them with a basic understanding of sex and abuse.

Normalizing the Word Sex

Normalizing the Word Sex

Students quizzed by the Decree Chronicles show an eagerness to find out more about sex, and want to learn this at school.

“I wanted to learn in school what a condom is, how to use it, why you shouldn’t have unprotected sex, why porn movies don’t depict reality. Let’s be real, all teenagers look at different websites because we are curious. Of course, when I got to the point of having sex, I thought it was cool to do it without a condom and not to worry if my partner feels comfortable. So my first sexual experience was horrible.”

“First of all, it should focus on the normalization of the word ‘sex’, instead of avoiding it by using vague names. It should have been a curriculum based on methods of protection, consent, termination of pregnancy, mental health, abuse, and toxic relationships.”

“I would have liked to have been told about sexually transmitted diseases and all contraceptive methods and why they are necessary. To have a person who is not our teacher talk to us about these things and be able to comfortably ask our questions. [I would like] People who are psychologically tested before talking to students about something like this, [tests] that shows that they can empathize with students’ situations without judging them for their decisions about their sex life, especially about beginning it.”

“I would have liked to learn in school not only what is strictly related to the anatomical parts, but also about the respect for the other person’s body, about life as a couple and its challenges, about the diversity of sexual orientations, pornography, sexting, discussions on topics such as ‘first time’, ‘sexual pleasure’, ‘masturbation’ etc. The emphasis should be on the emotional side, without putting students in an embarrassing situation and without discriminination.”

What the opinions compiled by the Decree Chronicles convey is that students want to know more than information about the prevention of pregnancy, diseases and the use of contraceptives. They want to talk about the pleasure of sex, about the difficulties of the first sexual intercourse. They do not want to be judged because they have chosen to start their sexual life and they want a safe space in which to express their fears and curiosities.

Are You Satisfied
with Your Sexual
and Reproductive Health?

Are You Satisfied with Your Sexual and Reproductive Health?

In Belgium there is an organization, Sensoa, which promotes the idea that sex education should also pay attention to the pleasurable side of sex, through a sex positive approach. Sensoa emphasizes the concept of sexual health, which is inevitably linked to respect for sexual and reproductive rights.

Sexual health is also linked to the right to access information, resources, services. In this regard, Sensoa has developed a ministerial policy plan (2016-2020) for the promotion of sexual health. Sensoa is an NGO, but it is also a partner to the Belgian state in shaping the sex education curriculum.

At a BZgA conference in 2017, the WHO drew attention to the limited understanding of sexual health, as well as the absence of data.

In some countries, sexual health is only associated with sexually transmitted infections. Issues such as sexual well-being and reproductive health are either considered separately or not at all.

The main question for people is: are they satisfied with their sexual and reproductive health? Some countries, such as the Netherlands, have tried to measure this and have found high levels of satisfaction in men and women between the ages of 12 and 25. However, data from many countries in the WHO European region is not available.

While Europe is raising the issue of expanding the idea of ​​sex education and correlating it with sex health services, Romania is still negotiating whether or not it is appropriate to have sex education in schools.

The most active opponent of the introduction of sex education in schools is the Romanian Orthodox Church. Through its spokesman, Vasile Bănescu, the Church sent the following message in the summer of 2021:

“We consider that the compulsory inclusion of students in sex education programs is an attack on the innocence of children, hindering their natural development and scarring them for life.”

Services that Accompany Education

Services that Accompany Education

According to a 2018 BZgA study, special sexual and reproductive health services for young people are available in ten European countries.

For example, in Estonia, a 2011 study to assess sex education showed that, in combination with sexual health services, the subject had a considerable impact on improving the sexual and reproductive health of young people. Sex education became compulsory in Estonia in 1996.

Let’s examine this case further. In the early 1990s, education and family planning services for young people were almost non-existent in this Baltic state. Against the background of these shortcomings, Estonian research shows. a culture of abortion was born among young people, In translation: abortion on demand was used as a method of contraception.

Health care reform made it possible for family planning services to be provided by family doctors too. In parallel with this change, youth counseling centers were created. In 2010 there were 20 such centers in the country.

All these factors combined have led to a decrease in the abortion rate among young women aged 15-19 by 61% – and in births by 59%. The annual number of new HIV cases among 15- to 19-year-olds fell from 560 in 2001 to 25 in 2009. New cases of syphilis fell from 116 in 1998 to two in 2009.

In Sweden, emergency contraception is available at pharmacies without prescription. Condoms are available in youth clinics and many schools. Young people have to pay for other contraceptive methods, but these are subsidized for people under 25, so that the price is not a barrier. A year of subsidized birth control pills cost about $10 in 2018.

In Austria, there are many sexual health services for young people, especially in Vienna. They are integrated with other health services, such as hospitals run by each federal state. The most important ones are information centers for young people; the centers of the Austrian Society for Family Planning; an online youth portal.

How is Romania doing on this topic? In the public system, the only services related to sexual health are those offered by family planning offices. How many such offices exist and what is their funding? It is a topic that we will address in a future article of the Decree Chronicles.

Photo: The family planning office, Aiud Hospital

The Romanian Model

The Romanian Model

France, a country where sex education became part of the national curriculum in 1998, recently decided that, starting 1 January 2022, contraception should be free for women under the age of 25.

They came to this policy after statistics showed that women had stopped using contraception for financial reasons.

This new policy is not that new. In 2013, authorities provided free contraception for girls aged 15-18. They did it to reduce pregnancies in minors, as well as abortions. As a result of this policy, abortions decreased from 9.5 in 2012 to to six per thousand inhabitants in 2018.

In Romania, contraception is not free for anyone. And in the absence of sex education, as well as of sexual health services, abortion becomes a method of contraception among young people.

In the last four years, in Teleorman County, 259 on-demand abortions were performed in public hospitals on girls under the age of 19. The figure represents 14% of the total on-demand abortions performed in Teleorman County during this period, in the public system. In the private system, in the same period, there was an additional number of 263 interruptions of pregnancy for girls in the same age category.

In Teleorman County there is no family planning office that has a contract with the County Health House and no doctor with a certificate or family planning skills to provide services based on the contractual relations with the respective health house.

In the schools in the county, notions of sexual education are taught according to the Romanian curriculum. Optional, incomplete and by people who lack the necessary training. The family environment is far from able to make up for this institutional absence.

The medical system only becomes aware of the final effects, such as registering births and abortions among adolescents, whose education has been abandoned by society. 

Ultimately, this currently produces the Romanian model of teaching sex education: a society that lets students learn on their own.

With all the consequences that derive from it.

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