Woo Yea Hwang, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education

Hyung-pyo Moon, Minister of Health and Welfare

Cc: Hyun Byung-chul, Chairperson, The National Human Rights Commission of Korea; Seokyoung Choi, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Korea in Geneva; Oh Joon, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations

RE: Need to recognize sexual orientation and gender identity in sex education 

Dear Minister Hwang and Minister Moon:

Human Rights Watch is an international nongovernmental organization that investigates and reports on human rights abuses in over 90 countries, including South Korea. We work on a range of human rights issues, including the rights of children, and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in countries worldwide.

We write to express concern over the recent announcement that the government of the Republic of Korea has instituted new sex education guidelines that specifically exclude any mention of homosexuality. Human Rights Watch is concerned that this new policy discriminates against LGBT youth and violates their right to education, information, and health. We believe that it also violates South Korea’s international human rights commitments, and could be harmful to young people and negatively affect public health. HIV infections have increased sharply in South Korea since 2000, and infections are increasing fastest among men in their 20s.[1]

The guidelines also contradict South Korea’s leadership role at the UN, where it has voted for both the 2011 and 2014 Human Rights Council resolutions to protect the human rights of LGBT people. [2] 

In its 2012 concluding observations on the Republic of Korea, the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) noted with concern that “despite initiatives undertaken to provide mandatory sex education programs, in practice there continues to be a lack of systematic and accurate education on sexual and reproductive health in schools” and recommended that the government “undertake measures to ensure that sex education programs in the school curriculum are conducted in a systematic and reliable manner.”[3] The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2011 made it a priority to improve health education targeted at workers, youth, teenagers, young adults, and the elderly in order to diminish risky behavior.[4]

Human Rights Watch understands that in May 2013 the Ministry of Education began research for a new sex education policy and in August 2013, the Graduate School of Occupational Health at the Catholic University of Korea was selected to research and draft the policy.[5] According to human rights activists in Seoul, only a small group of civil society organizations were given the chance to provide input, and much of what they contributed was evidently not included in the draft. However, in March 2014, the Church Press Association, a religious group, issued a statement condemning the contents of the policy for teaching students about homosexuality openly and mentioning “diverse sexual orientations” which, the religious group claimed, may lead young people to “fall into temptation” and a “wrong” sort of sexual culture. [6]

On February 10, 2015, the Ministry of Education began to hold training sessions for district education officers across the country to introduce the new policy so that the officers could deliver the same information to teachers in their respective regions. The presentation used in these sessions, which was designed by the professor conducting the training sessions, included the following instructions:[7]

  • Homosexuality and mention of sexual minorities: Not allowed.
  • The phrase “A variety of sexual orientations,” which is used in the curriculum, is now banned and deleted from the curriculum.
  • The phrase and content “Human rights of sexual minorities” must be deleted from the curriculum.

Following demonstrations by teachers and human rights activists in several cities, on March 30, 2015, the Ministry of Education released an official communique, which stated there was a misunderstanding of the sex education guidelines.  The government communique said the following:

  1. In relation to teaching about homosexuality
    a. The subject of “homosexuality” is being treated from a human rights perspective in the curriculum.
    b.  But, as “homosexuality” is not a common issue in relation to “sexual orientation”, the subject was not actively included at a government level in the process of preparing the “School Sexual Education Manual” (school education needs to maintain value neutrality regarding society, culture, and religion.)
  2. Regarding the material used during the training on the “School Sexual Education Manual” there was a misunderstanding. In the material, “education on homosexuality is not allowed,” is changed to “in the sex education manual, a part on homosexuality is not included”.

Human Rights Watch notes that the decision not to include homosexuality in the manual clearly discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Accordingly, we strongly urge the government of the Republic of Korea to immediately reverse this policy decision. Human Rights Watch further urges South Korea to halt ongoing teacher training programs under the new sex education guidelines until the policy can be amended to comport with the government’s obligations to ensure the rights to information, education, and health.

The right to education

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education noted in 2010 that sexuality, health, and education are “interdependent rights,” explaining that, “we must be able to look after our health, deal positively, responsibly, and respectfully with our sexuality, and must therefore be aware of our needs and rights.”

According to the Special Rapporteur, “This is possible only if we receive comprehensive sexual education from the outset of our schooling and throughout the educational process” and “In order to be comprehensive, sexual education must pay special attention to diversity, since everyone has the right to deal with his or her own sexuality without being discriminated against on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.”[8] South Korea’s sex education guidelines clearly contravene the approach recommended by the Special Rapporteur.

Major UN agencies, such as the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and UNESCO also recommend approaches to sex education significantly different from what South Korea is moving to implement. The UNFPA Operational Guidance for Comprehensive Sexuality Education decries an exclusionary approach and states that sex education should: “Explore and nurture positive values and attitudes towards their sexual and reproductive health, and develop self-esteem, respect for human rights, and gender equality.” UNFPA states that: “Comprehensive Sexuality Education empowers young people to take control of their own behavior and, in turn, treat others with respect, acceptance, tolerance, and empathy, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, race, or sexual orientation.”[9]

Developing comprehensive and inclusive sexuality education programs is also part of children’s and women’s rights obligations, as outlined by the monitoring bodies specific to those rights treaties. The UN CRC frequently recommends to countries that they improve adolescent reproductive health care education policies.[10] The UN CEDAW Committee also comments on the importance of comprehensive sex education, especially with regard to preventing the spread of HIV.[11] For example, the CEDAW Committee recommends: “States parties [should] intensify efforts in disseminating information to increase public awareness of the risk of HIV infection and AIDS, especially in women and children, and of its effects on them …[and] give special attention to the rights and needs of women and children.”[12]

Human Rights Watch believes states should make comprehensive sex education part of the school curriculum, ensure that teachers are trained in its contents, and allocate time to teach it.

The UNESCO International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education puts the impetus on policymakers and education officials at schools to take a leadership role in promoting sexuality education.[13]

The rights to health and information

The human right to the highest attainable standard of health requires that individuals have access to accurate information, including information related to sexual and reproductive health. UN treaty bodies have repeatedly discussed the importance of accurate and inclusive sex education and information as a means of ensuring the right to health because it contributes to a reduction of the rates of maternal mortality, abortion, adolescent pregnancies, and HIV. Placing restrictions on health-related information, including information relating to sexual orientation and gender identity, can violate fundamental rights guaranteed by international law, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds and the right to the highest attainable standard of health.

The Republic of Korea ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in 1990. The UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights made it clear that the right to health extends “not only to timely and appropriate health care but also to the underlying determinants of health,” including “access to health-related education and information, including on sexual and reproductive health.”[14] Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child reiterates the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health.[15]

The CRC has said that “Adolescents have the right to access adequate information essential for their health and development and for their ability to participate meaningfully in society” and called on states “to ensure that all adolescent girls and boys, both in and out of school, are provided with, and not denied, accurate and appropriate information on how to protect their health and development and practice healthy behaviors.”[16] UNICEF’s 2014 position paper on eliminating discrimination against LGBT children states that “CRC member states and signatories should report on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” including discrimination in schools, and “in reporting on efforts to realize the right to health, signatories may wish to consider relevant LGBT health education and service issues.”[17]

In its General Comment number 4, the CRC, “calls upon States parties to develop and implement, in a manner consistent with adolescents’ evolving capacities, legislation, policies, and programs to promote the health and development of adolescents…” and “providing adequate information and parental support to facilitate the development of a relationship of trust and confidence in which issues regarding, for example, sexuality and sexual behavior and risky lifestyles can be openly discussed and acceptable solutions found that respect the adolescent’s rights”[18]

In February 2014 the CEDAW Committee said that adolescents should have access to accurate information about their sexual and reproductive health and rights, including responsible sexual behavior, prevention of early pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases.[19]

The right to information includes information about sexual orientation and gender identity, and associated health needs, and increases as LGBT adolescents reach the onset of puberty. LGBT adolescents are subject to disproportionate rates of bullying, as noted by UNESCO[20] and as documented by Human Rights Watch in the United States.[21] As a result, they often experience feelings of isolation and alienation. For these individuals, pro-LGBT messages and accurate information about sexual orientation and gender identity are vital to a healthy sense of self, the promotion of understanding amongst peers, and access to other information such as health-related information.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has pointed out that, effective HIV prevention “requires States to refrain from censoring, withholding, or intentionally misrepresenting health-related information, including sexual education and information, and that, consistent with their obligations to ensure the right to life, survival, and development of the child” and called on governments to “ensure that children have the ability to acquire the knowledge and skills to protect themselves and others as they begin to express their sexuality.”[22] In the same General Comment, the CRC noted the negative impact of discrimination based on sexual orientation can have on HIV education.

The World Health Organization explains that states must “recognize and remove barriers to general and sexuality education,” including by incorporating “promotion of rights, diversity and gender equality into teacher-training curricula.” The WHO makes clear that “Sexual health cannot be defined, understood or made operational without a broad consideration of sexuality, which underlies important behaviors and outcomes related to sexual health” and includes in its definition of sexuality “sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation…”[23]

Therefore, Human Rights Watch calls on the government to:

  • Immediately halt the roll-out of the new sex education guidelines;
  • Convene consultation sessions with civil society, health experts, and human rights experts to revise the guidelines and bring them in line with South Korea’s international obligations to protect the rights to information, education, and health for all persons without discrimination;
  • Issue an unambiguous statement affirming the rights of LGBT children in South Korea’s schools, including the obligation of school officials to protect LGBT students from harm and provide relevant and accurate information to them.

[1] Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of HIV and Tuberculosis Control. “HIV/AIDS Control in the Republic of Korea.” 2011. http://www.unaids.org/sites/default/files/country/documents//ce_KR_Narrative_Report%5B1%5D.pdf; Hae-Wol Cho. “What’s next for HIV/AIDS in Korea?” Osong Public Health Res Perspectives. 2013 Dec; 4(6): 291–292. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3922106/#bib2

[2] Resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council. Human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity. July 14, 2011. A/HRC/RES/17/19; Resolution adopted by UN Human Rights Council. Human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity. October 2, 2014. A/HRC/RES/27/32

[3] CRC/C/KOR/CO/3-4

[4] Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of HIV and Tuberculosis Control. “HIV/AIDS Control in the Republic of Korea.” 2011. http://www.unaids.org/sites/default/files/country/documents//ce_KR_Narrative_Report%5B1%5D.pdf;

[5] The Catholic University of Korea is a WHO collaborating center: http://apps.who.int/whocc/Detail.aspx?cc_ref=KOR-9&cc_code=kor

[6] Christian Today. “"the Ministry of 'sex education standards', sexual recommended.” March 27, 2014.  http://www.christiantoday.co.kr/view.htm?id=271074

[7] School "sex education standards" and training sessions. Available online at: http://www.sen.go.kr/web/services/bbs/bbsView.action?bbsBean.bbsCd=94&bbsBean.bbsSeq=5687; see Ministry of Education Guidelines on Sex Education: http://schoolhealth.kr/edugender/

[8] Report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education. July 23, 2010. A/65/162. http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N10/462/13/PDF/N1046213.pdf?OpenElement

[9] UNFPA. “UNFPA Operational Guidance for Comprehensive Sexuality Education.” http://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/UNFPA_OperationalGuidance_WEB3.pdf

[10] Committee on the Rights of the Child, Concluding Observations: Albania, para. 57, U.N. Doc. CRC/C/15/Add.249 (2005); Committee on the Rights of the Child, Concluding Observations: Algeria, paras. 58, 59, U.N. Doc. CRC/C/15/Add.269 (2005).

[11] CEDAW Committee, General Recommendation 15: Avoidance of discrimination against women in national strategies for the prevention and control of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), U.N. Doc. A/45/38 at 81 (1990).

[12] CEDAW Committee, General Recommendation 15: Avoidance of discrimination against women in national strategies for the prevention and control of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), U.N. Doc. A/45/38 at 81 (1990).

[13] UNESCO, “International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education.” http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0018/001832/183281e.pdf

[14] Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Substantive Issues Arising in the Implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. General Comment Number 14. August 11, 2000. E/C.12/2000/4

[15] Convention on the Rights of the Child: http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx

[16] Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment 4.

[17] UNICEF position paper: Eliminating Discrimination Against Children and Parents Based on Sexual Orientation and / or Gender Identity. 2014.  http://www.unicef.org/media/files/Position_Paper_Sexual_Identification_and_Gender_Identity_12_Nov_2014%283%29.pdf

[18] Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment number 4. CRC/GC/2003/4. http://tb.ohchr.org/default.aspx?Symbol=CRC/GC/2003/4

[19] CEDAW Committee, “Statement of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women on sexual and reproductive health and rights: Beyond 2014 ICPD review,” February 10-28, 2014, http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CEDAW/Shared%20Documents/1_Global/INT_CEDAW_SED_57_21765_E.pdf

[20] UNESCO. “Education Sector Responses to Homophobic Bullying.” http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0021/002164/216493e.pdf; also available in Korean: https://www.unesco.or.kr/data_center/sub_02_view.asp?articleid=951&cate=data02

[21] Human Rights Watch, “Hatred in the Hallways:” Violence and Discrimination Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Students in US Schools, May 1, 2001. https://www.hrw.org/reports/2001/05/01/hatred-hallways

[22] Committee on the Rights of the Child. General Comment number 3. CRC/GC/2003/3. http://tb.ohchr.org/default.aspx?Symbol=CRC/GC/2003/3

[23] World Health Organization. “Developing sexual health programmes: A framework for action,” 2010: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hq/2010/WHO_RHR_HRP_10.22_eng.pdf?ua=1