January 24 is the International Day of Education, which celebrates the key role that education plays in ensuring peace, development, gender equality, and human rights. For this year’s celebration, however, there is a dark stain on Peru’s education record: Law No. 31498, which purports to “promote the quality of educational materials and resources.”
Congress passed this law in May 2022 effectively giving publicly registered parental organizations supervisory and veto powers over the Education Ministry’s learning materials for early childhood, primary, and secondary schools. These organizations can provide input about, for example, whether the materials respect “the religious liberty and moral convictions” of students and parents, or whether the materials promote “practices that can constitute ‘moral crimes.’” “Moral crimes” is a nebulous term that appears to be a reference to issues of sexual and reproductive rights. Public servants can face disciplinary sanctions, including suspension without pay or dismissal, for failure to comply with the obligation, established by the law, to consult parents.
It is important to involve parents in their children’s education and there is already a framework that promotes this participation. But the level of control that this law gives parental organizations is unprecedented and poses a risk to independent education and the quality of educational materials by ignoring the experience and pedagogical expertise that creating learning materials requires. It also calls into question the Education Ministry’s essential role in implementing the National Curriculum of Basic Education, which is grounded in the respect for human rights. Parents committed to quality education for their children should be worried.
The lawmaker who initially proposed the law was a prominent figure in a conservative parental group that opposes discussing gender in class, and rejects comprehensive sexuality education. Another parental group has in recent years appealed to the Supreme Court to block age-appropriate gender and sexuality material in schools. Education Without Backsliding, a coalition of human rights organizations, told Human Rights Watch that they see the law as an attempt by conservative groups to censor age-appropriate information about gender and sexuality in schools, a key element of human rights-centered education. The coalition has filed suit to halt the implementation of the law. The Peruvian Human Rights Ombudsperson has also has also spoken out publicly against the law.
Under international law, children have a right to comprehensive sexuality education. At its core, it consists of age-appropriate, affirming, and scientifically accurate learning materials that can help foster safe and informed practices to help prevent gender-based violence, gender inequity, sexually transmitted infections, and unintended pregnancies. It can equip young people with the skills to develop a positive view of diverse sexualities, both their own and their peers’. Peru’s Supreme Court held in 2019 that learning material on gender and sexuality is essential to promote equality and human rights.
Peruvian children critically need this information. The United Nations found that in 2018, 38 percent of Peruvian girls and women ages 15 to 49 reported suffering physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence, and in 2022 it reiterated its concern for these high levels of violence. In 2020, the government hotline for domestic and sexual violence received almost twice as many reports as in 2019.
A 2019 government survey showed that Peruvians perceive lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people as being the most discriminated against in the country, which the Inter-American Court of Human Rights highlighted when it found in Azul Rojas Marín v. Peru in 2020 that these populations face high levels of structural and institutional discrimination.
But Law No. 31498’s insidious effects could extend beyond information on gender and sexuality. The law states that parental organizations can effectively veto learning materials related to “personal development, citizenship and civic education, social sciences, world discovery, and science and technology.” In Peru’s politically polarized context, parents could use the law to restrict information on any other number of controversial human rights issues in the country, such as accountability for past abuses, rule of law, and freedom of expression. In this sense, it threatens the development of critical and reflective thinking of the students, so essential to consolidate a more democratic society.
Law No. 31498 undermines the vital role that education plays in shaping informed, critical, and inquiring minds. Lawmakers should uphold international human rights law and adhere to past Supreme Court jurisprudence that upheld the need to provide information on gender and sexuality. Only when lawmakers reject elevating parental rights over sound educational practice and revoke the law, can Peru fully celebrate the values of International Day of Education.