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A teacher speaks to students during a lesson at a public school in São Paulo, Brazil on October 18, 2021.  © 2021 Patricia Monteiro/Bloomberg via Getty Images

(São Paulo) – Lawmakers and other public officials at the federal, state, and municipal levels in Brazil have used pernicious legal and political tactics to undermine and even prohibit gender and sexuality education, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 77-page report, “‘I Became Scared, This Was Their Goal’: Efforts to Ban Gender and Sexuality Education in Brazil,” analyzes 217 bills and laws presented between 2014 and 2022 designed to explicitly forbid the teaching or sharing of gender and sexuality education, or ban so-called “gender ideology” or “indoctrination” in municipal and state schools. Human Rights Watch also documented a political effort to discredit and restrict gender and sexuality education, bolstered by the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, who has personally amplified this message for political effect, including as recently as March 2022.

“These hostile attempts to suppress comprehensive approaches to sexuality education are grounded in prejudice and undermine the rights to education and to nondiscrimination in Brazil,” said Cristian González Cabrera, LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Lawmakers should revoke laws and withdraw bills that violate children’s rights and instead ensure they all benefit from comprehensive sexuality education, in accordance with Brazilian and international law.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 56 public school teachers, education experts, representatives of state departments of education, and civil society organizations. Interviews with 32 public school teachers from 8 states in Brazil revealed that they were hesitant or fearful to address gender and sexuality in the classroom due to the legal and political efforts to discredit such material.

Teachers said they were harassed for addressing gender and sexuality, including by elected officials and community members. Some teachers faced administrative proceedings for covering such material, while others were summoned to provide statements to the police and other officials.

In early 2020, Alan Rodrigues, a Rio de Janeiro public high school teacher, received an anonymous email after he organized a campaign against sexual violence with his students: “Stop the indoctrination of students! We let it slide in 2019! Teachers like you should die! We are watching! You will get only one warning!” Rodrigues said he had received threats since 2014 for addressing topics relating to gender and sexuality in the classroom.

Virginia Ferreira, a public school English teacher in Vinhedo, São Paulo state, was accused by municipal government officials of “indoctrination” and “losses to students’ learning” after she asked her eighth-grade students to research feminism and gender-based violence in commemoration of International Women’s Day in 2019. Ferreira said she underwent two years of disciplinary proceedings and social media threats and posts aiming at discrediting her professionally.

Teachers and education experts say the laws and bills, political rhetoric, and harassment create a “chilling effect” on some teachers’ willingness to talk about gender and sexuality in class.

Damares Alves, who stepped down as minister of women, family, and human rights in March 2022 to run for office, has attacked gender and sexuality education, decrying the “indoctrination” and “sexualization” of children.

Ministers of Education in the Bolsonaro administration have employed discriminatory rhetoric aimed at undermining gender and sexuality education. Milton Ribeiro, who stepped down in March following allegations of corruption, has said that gender and sexuality education is an “incentive” for youth to have sex. Ribeiro also said that homosexual children come from “maladjusted families.” Previous ministers had a history of similar remarks.

In 2020, Brazil’s Supreme Court issued landmark rulings striking down eight laws banning gender and sexuality education. The court found the bans violated the rights to equality, nondiscrimination, and education, among others. At least four similar cases remain pending.

The Supreme Court has served as an important check on such laws, including at a time when President Bolsonaro has increasingly tried to intimidate the court and threatened and insulted Supreme Court justices, Human Rights Watch found. But some city councils continue to pass laws banning gender and sexuality education.

In March 2022, in one example, the city of Sinop in Mato Grosso state passed a law banning teachers from providing information on “gender ideology,” sexual orientation, and sexual and reproductive rights in all municipal schools.

In Brazil, conservative groups and elected public officials have employed “gender ideology” rhetoric to fuel allegations of “indoctrination” of children in schools with “political” and “non-neutral” ideas related to gender and sexuality. By instilling fear that children are at risk, these stakeholders weaponize education for political gain among a conservative segment of the population.

Brazilian law and guidelines, both at the federal and state levels, require instruction on gender and sexuality. Under international law, children’s right to comprehensive sexuality education is an essential element of the right to education. At its core, comprehensive sexuality education consists of age-appropriate, affirming, and scientifically accurate curricula that can help foster safe and informed practices to prevent gender-based violence, gender inequity, sexually transmitted infections, and unintended pregnancies.  

Brazil’s high levels of gender-based violence, including violence against women, girls, and LGBT people, are one indicator of a critical need for such instruction in schools, Human Rights Watch said. Studies and education experts link comprehensive sexuality education to numerous positive outcomes in young peoples’ lives, such as delayed initiation of sexual intercourse and increased use of condoms and contraception, increased knowledge on protection from sexual and gender-based violence, and positive attitudes toward gender equity and diversity.

Lawmakers at all levels of Brazilian government should immediately withdraw bills or revoke laws that infringe upon the rights of students to learn about gender and sexuality, Human Rights Watch said. Officials at the federal, state, and municipal levels should cease to politicize gender and sexuality education or to use it as a wedge issue.

The Education Ministry and state and municipal departments of education should adhere to existing law and guidelines, Supreme Court rulings, and international human rights law protecting the right to comprehensive sexuality education. That should include ensuring that school administrators, teachers, and other school staff understand and feel supported in teaching and holding activities aimed to expand knowledge on this topic.

“Ultimately, the misuse of gender and sexuality education as a political weapon most directly and negatively affects Brazil’s teachers and young people, those who need the information most,” González said. “Brazil should focus its efforts on ensuring that all youth have adequate and inclusive information on gender and sexuality, which they need to live healthy and safe lives.”


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