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Vow to Europe to Offer Sex Ed Angers Parents

MTBoys giggling at a shop window lined with mannequins on Tverskaya Ulitsa. Schools must start offering sex education under the European Social Charter.��
Russia has one of the world's highest rates of HIV infection among young people. At the same time, schools are teaching students that sexually transmitted diseases are caused by a "frivolous lifestyle," and textbooks fail to mention the word "condom."

"There is no sex education in the modern sense in Russia," said Alexei Bobrik, deputy director of the Open Health Institute, an NGO that runs HIV education programs. "Not a single government-approved textbook uses the word 'condom.'"

The lack of modern sex education in Russian schools may have to change after Russia signed up to the European Social Charter on May 20.

Among the provisions of the charter, Russia ratified an article on the "right to protection of health." A fact sheet issued by the European Social Charter in March explains that health education at schools should be a priority and include sex education.

The article "can be interpreted in different ways," said Vladimir Nasonkin, co-chairman of the Federal Center for Education Legislation. "Different interpretations and commentaries may be taken into consideration when the charter's provisions are implemented but may not be."

At the moment, lawmakers are working on a new standard of state-school education in Russia that may include the provisions of the European Social Charter, Nasonkin said.

But experts are skeptical that schools will embrace a European-style approach, complete with contraceptive advice and frank discussion of changes during puberty.

"I think we'll move in the same direction as other European countries, but our starting point is different, so it will take longer," Bobrik said, blaming the "outdated system of school education."

"A good idea can turn into a very mediocre result. I think it could turn into some one-off sessions on sex education," said Alexandra Kareva, a project coordinator at Project Hope, an NGO that produces sex-education textbooks and trains teachers in Russia.

Sex education faces widespread opposition from religious and conservative groups.

A conservative organization called the Parents' Committee has petitioned Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill to stop this provision of the European Social Charter from being implemented, calling sex education "a looming evil."

Lyubov Kachesova, one of the movement's leaders, told The Moscow Times that parents and members of various organizations had sent letters to the head of the State Duma factions and to two ministries, the Health and Social Development Ministry and the Education and Science Ministry. "Parents didn't receive a single answer that really answered their questions," she complained.

Kachesova said campaigners are "practically sure" that sex education lessons will be introduced.

She criticized existing programs, which she said are imported by private Russian organizations from the West. "In Russian, they sound primitive, ridiculous and sometimes downright illegal. When parents find out their content, they experience shock and disgust," she said, adding that she began protesting against the lessons when her own children were in school.

One of the supporters against the sex-education movement is psychologist Irina Medvedeva. "If it is made law, there will be acts of civil disobedience," she warned. "We consider that sex education of children is harmful in all senses."

Sex education "destroys the romantic view of love," she said. "The feeling of mutual attraction goes cold before children reach adulthood."

Any sex education should be left to parents, she said. "It's up to the parents' judgment in cases where children are really interested. It shouldn't be a school subject," she said.

In Moscow schools, sex education is taught only as part of a subject called OBZh, or Basics of a Safe Lifestyle, said Alexander Gavrilov, a spokesman for the Moscow education department.

"As part of this subject, there is a small section that is about the relationships between the genders and sexual relations. We are not planning to widen this subject," Gavrilov said.

The Moscow city government has made limited attempts to educate the public about sexually transmitted diseases, running a 2005 poster campaign that said condoms don't prevent HIV and urged people to be faithful to a single partner.

An OBZh textbook approved by the Education and Science Ministry for final-year students advises girls not to wear short skirts. It also warns that people who lead a "frivolous lifestyle" are more likely to catch sexually transmitted diseases, but it does not recommend condom use.

The OBZh course is put together by the Emergency Situations Ministry and focuses on military training. The textbooks also include a section on how to assemble a Kalashnikov rifle.

Protests by parents caused OBZh textbooks to be altered in 2008, removing what they called "vulgar, cynical and psychologically harmful" content, said Kachesova of the Parents' Committee.

"It's more important to learn how to put on a gas mask than how to put on a condom," said Kareva of Project Hope.

While schools brush the subject under the carpet, most Russians begin their sex lives before they graduate from high school. "By the age of 17 or 18, most Russians have had sexual experience, but at the same time they have not had any clear information in their formal education," Bobrik said.

"A program linked with sex education should start at 11 or 12, before children begin their sex lives," said Kareva of Project Hope. Anonymous surveys by Project Hope indicate that about half of 15- to 17-year-old teenagers are already having sex.

Explicit descriptions of sex are ubiquitous in tabloids and on late-night television shows. But the focus is on titillation, not information.

"There's no serious discussion of the most common problems," said sexologist Alexander Poleyev. "There are a few television shows, but they are more entertainment."

As a result, Russians don't know much about sex, Poleyev said. "The patients who come to us with sexual problems are, of course, extremely ill-informed" about foreplay and other topics, he said.

Ignorance or inability to talk about sex is also a contributing factor to the spread of HIV. Russia has one of the world's fastest-growing rates of HIV infection, and most people who contract HIV are aged 15 to 29.

Experts list various reasons why sex education hasn't taken root in Russia, despite official attempts to make it part of school courses in the 1990s and early 2000s. "The topic of sex is very, very sensitive both in Russian official culture and schools," Bobrik said, adding that there is also "strong resistance from some of the parents."

"It's not just about a couple of stupid lawmakers," Bobrik said. "You basically can't do this in Russia."

"It's well-known that the main religion in Russia is Orthodox Christianity, where children are traditionally brought up in chastity," said Kachesova of the Parents' Committee. "The Western system of sex education of children being practiced in our country contradicts the idea of bringing up children in chastity."

But sexologist Poleyev thinks differently. "The number of truly religious people who want to keep away from this is very small. How many families are truly religious? Perhaps two in 1,000."

He said the barrier to sex education was probably the expense and difficulty of adding a new school subject. "When people don't want to do something, they'll find 117 reasons," he said.

Olga Romanova, Project Hope's program director in Russia, agreed. "There are parents who write angry letters and raise religious-based objections to our program," she said. "In fact, when we ask for consent from parents to run the program, literally only a handful refuse."

Romanova of Project Hope has been working since 1997 on writing textbooks and training teachers. The campaign's sponsors have included the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The first program was commissioned, though not funded, by the education ministry and used at schools in 68 regions. But the program was closed in 2003, Romanova said.

"The system of education reflects what is happening in the country as a whole," Romanova said. "In that first period, they tried to supplement OBZh lessons with life skills and health, but now there is a return to military education, this kind of patriotic education."

Sex education, with its need for open discussion and frankness, has become unwelcome in Russian schools, she said. "Our program has become dangerous as a program that teaches people to think independently, to talk and make decisions."

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