CONSERVATIVE “pro-family” advocacy groups with U.S. ties are targeting increasingly inclusive sex education lesson plans being developed by the South African Education Department as part of the life orientation curriculum.
Three groups in particular are vehemently opposed to the new content. They are Freedom of Religion South Africa (For SA), the conservative teachers’ union (SAOU) and the Family Policy Institute.
The three organisations are calling on civil society to mobilise a boycott of the new Comprehensive Sex Education (CSE) material. They argue that the content violates traditional Christian values and is dangerous to children.
The new lesson plans have not yet been released. But media reports suggest they include topics such as consent, gender and sexuality diversity, self-image, genital differences and changes, body diversity and touching oneself for pleasure. According to the Department of Basic Education, the purpose of CSE “is to ensure that we help pupils build an understanding of concepts, content, values and attitudes related to sexuality, sexual behaviour change as well as leading safe and healthy lives”.
But For SA calls the plans “nothing less than soft porn”. The government has strongly rejected and debunked the misleading information that is circulating.
The narrative that sex education is dangerous to children is common among U.S. conservative pro-family advocacy groups. The pro-family movement unites the anti-abortion and anti-gay movements that emerged in the U.S. during the 1970s in response to the sexual revolution.
The pro-family movement advocates two main messages. The first is that the heterosexual nuclear family is the only “natural” form of kinship.
The second is that the nuclear family is economically productive whereas others — such as those involving LGBTIQ+ people and non-nuclear families — are social threats and economic burdens. These messages reinforce intolerance and can even inspire hatred towards LGBTIQ+ people.
My research shows that U.S. Christian right organisations have increasingly grown transatlantic networks in Africa. As part of their expansion strategy they provide “mentorship” to support the establishment of pro-family civil society organisations and campaigns.
Efforts to stop the government’s proposed inclusive approach to education about sexuality could have serious negative consequences. This is because research has shown that an inclusive approach can have a profoundly positive effect on young people. For example, information about contraception, masturbation and consent makes it more likely that young adolescents will have safer sexual encounters. And an emphasis on the benefits of abstinence, as well as information about contraception and disease prevention, have been shown to help reduce rates of teen pregnancy and the transmission of sexually transmitted infections. The new content has been developed to combat sexual abuse and the country’s extreme levels of gender-based harm and femicide. As more countries adopt CSE into their school curricula to address these issues, it has become a focal point of pro-family activism.
RISE OF THE U.S. RIGHT IN AFRICA
In South Africa, several organisations recently launched a campaign against the new curriculum called the Protect Children South Africa Coalition. According to organisers Family Watch International, the purpose is to stop the “exploitation” of children, which they allege occurs through the CSE programmes.
Family Watch joined its Cape Town-based partner, the Family Policy Institute, to create the movement. The coalition has circulated an online letter to present to the Department of Education. It states: “Highly controversial CSE programmes … indoctrinate youth to embrace radical sexual and gender ideologies, promote sexual rights and abortion, and encourage promiscuity, high-risk sexual behaviours, and sexual pleasure, even to the very youngest of children.”
Family Watch launched identical petitions to similar curriculum changes in Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana. In all instances it collaborated with local organisations. These campaigns are ideologically related to global campaigns that have banned gender studies, such as those in Brazil and Hungary, and efforts to do the same in Western Europe.
WHAT IS PRO-FAMILY IDEOLOGY?
The pro-family movement is against any family formation that does not resemble the Western-centric, heterosexual, nuclear model. This includes households headed by single parents or by same-sex parents, and polygamous families.
The core of these campaigns dates back to the 1990s, when anti-gay and anti-abortion activists joined forces in the International Organisation for the Family. This was previously the World Congress of Families.
The movement began to call itself pro-family, arguing that the nuclear family is the foundation of every civilisation known to history. It says the nuclear family is under attack by LGBTIQ+ and feminist movements.
Pro-family organisations based in the U.S. have been working to spread their message in Africa since the early 2000s. They have, at times, positioned themselves as allies of the previously colonised. Yet, the ideas on which these movements are based have colonial roots. Colonial notions of racial superiority and inferiority were constructed through ideas of what constituted “civilised” sex and gender practices.
The U.S. pro-family movement has had numerous successes in African countries and elsewhere in the global south. This is well illustrated in the work of Dr Kapya Kaoma, a Zambian researcher based at Political Research Associates.
In one report, titled Colonising African Values: How the U.S. Christian Right is Transforming Sexual Politics in Africa, Kaoma shows how pro-family activism has transplanted U.S. culture war debates to African countries.
In addressing those who oppose CSE, it is important that decision-makers also recognise the geo-political networks of power supporting these agendas. Fortunately, the SA government shows no signs of backing down on the sex education curriculum.
A great many young South Africans would be at risk if it were to do so.
— The Conversation.
• Haley McEwen is research co-ordinator at the University of the Witwatersrand.