Sex ed scapegoat: why Argentina needs its ESI law

The country’s seminal sex education law is continually under attack, with activists and educators citing concerns about its demonization during the electoral campaign

Sex education is a contentious topic that’s often mired in political controversy, and Argentina is no different. But the country’s Integral Sexual Education Law (Ley de Educación Sexual Integral or ESI) is more than a traditional sex education curriculum: it’s stand-out legislation unique to the region that is considered key to the overall well-being of students and combating discrimination. 

With conservative factions targeting sex ed globally in recent years, Argentina saw a spate of new attacks towards the ESI in 2023 — particularly on the campaign trail of the far-right coalition La Libertad Avanza (LLA).

Passed in 2006, the ESI established that sex ed classes should go beyond information on sexual intercourse to tackle topics including emotional regulation and reproductive rights, with subjects evolving as is age-appropriate. The ESI’s five pillars — caring for body and health, valuing affectivity, guaranteeing gender equality, respecting diversity, and exercising rights — mean that its implementation can range from handling toxic friendships to accessing contraceptives provided by the state.

“The ESI isn’t about mandating things, it’s providing information. Not ‘Here’s what you should do’ but ‘Options A, B and C exist, what do you think?’” Belén Mayans, the head ESI liaison for 53 Buenos Aires high schools, told the Herald.

Although it can be taught as a standalone class, the ESI provides a baseline for teachers to incorporate issues of consent, emotional responsibility, identifying abuse, and gender inclusion across all aspects of school and beyond.

“They love to say that we teach children how to use condoms in preschool. What we teach them is to take care of their own bodies and to differentiate what is caring behavior from an adult and what could be potentially abusive,” said Mariela Sarlinga, a teacher specialized in ESI since 2009 who is on the academic board for the Dr. Joaquín V González ESI postgraduate degree. 

“Because school is where most cases of abuse are identified. We are guarantors of those rights, we are the possibility that those kids find shelter in their preschool classroom.” 

A study by the Public Tutelary Ministry (MPT) of the City of Buenos Aires revealed that between 70 and 80 percent of the children and adolescents between 12 and 14 years of age who received ESI classes were able to understand that they were being abused. 

“There’s this idea of ‘My kid, my property, I’ll educate them at home’ when in reality most cases of abuse are intrafamilial. Plus, there’s no reason to assume that parents have all the tools to teach these things,” said Lucía de Mateo, a youth activist with Es Con ESI (It should be done with ESI) which did a joint campaign with UNICEF this year. “The ESI is a human right that opens the door to others.

“We are ahead of the curve in Latin America: unlike other countries, we have legislation, but it’s fundamental that we defend it.”

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De Mateo, who is 20 years old, told the Herald that she did not have a transversal ESI experience at school, as is outlined by the law. She and others in the student council had to advocate for their sex education.

“I was in the student council, and we managed to create opportunities for different conversations but always with certain resistance — if we suggested an activity there were concerns about what families would say, and we had to ask permission for the kids to attend,” De Mateo explained. “If we had ESI it was because someone on the student council was interested in the topic and made that decision.”

This points to what Sarlinga considers to be a flaw in the ESI legislation: Article 5, which established that each institution can adopt the law’s sex ed guidelines according to its values. 

“It’s key to understanding the tensions that existed between the players at the time, whether or not it was passed depended on the wording of this or that clause,” she said. “Catholic schools developed an entirely different sex ed curriculum based on that article, with some materials teaching abstinence and that homosexuality is an illness.”

Now, the ESI’s most vocal detractors in 2023 hail from LLA. The head of the coalition and presidential candidate Javier Milei has called for the ESI to be optional, claiming it seeks to “exterminate the population” as part of a “post-Marxist agenda.” His running mate Victoria Villaruel has described it as “indoctrination” and said sex ed should be “focused on biology,” which would not only be scientifically outdated but socially regressive.

“We’re returning to battles that have already been fought and largely won. The things I’m starting to hear from a small minority of parents are lifted straight from the discourse we’re seeing on television,” said Mayans, stressing that the families were a definite minority but that it had been a noticeable pattern this year.

“It gives space to those who were already uncomfortable with the ESI,” Mayans told the Herald, citing certain families protesting that semen had been mentioned in a sixth-grade class as an example. “They’re often scared of their child growing up and not knowing what to do.” 

Several later requested educational resources, which were provided in the ongoing back and forth that is common between parents and ESI teachers. 

Such attitudes are commonplace among LLA referents: the ultra-right coalition’s erstwhile mayoral candidate for Buenos Aires City, Ramiro Marra, spoke against the ESI in an interview claiming that he encouraged kids to watch pornography because that’s how he learned sex ed. 

“We keep opening the door for violence on kids who mimic the brutal stereotypes they see and push them to do things that are bad for them,” Sarlinga said. “It’s true that porn teaches many things, but what is the quality of that education?”

When asked about the real possibility of the ESI being repealed or withdrawn in any substantial way, Sarlinga and Mayans said that it would be dangerous for students and a fight on all fronts, but ultimately, the progress has already been made.

“The schools always act as resistance and the students as resistors,” said Mayans. “The fight is with the kids, who can own their ESI classes as a safe space. You could hear a pin drop in most classes because they really want to know and recognize that it’s for them, that it’s about their rights.”

De Mateo echoed this, adding that “everyone should be defending the ESI, the responsibility shouldn’t be 100% on the students.”

There’s also the fact that the ESI has evolved since its initial passing, with multiple revisions of core curriculum criteria alongside a changing legislative and social landscape — the right to same-sex marriage and abortion, for example, laws that were passed after 2006.

“There’s no way of going back because the kids speak in [gender neutral] inclusive language at school, they correct you and call out discrimination. They’re in touch with their identity and their rights,” said Sarlinger. “I think any of [LLA’s] proposals against the ESI is incredibly dangerous and anti-democratic because it goes against all the values we have nurtured these past 40 years when it comes to human rights.” 

“Our sexual and reproductive rights are fundamental human rights; they’re not a privilege.”


All Right Reserved.  Buenos Aires Herald