(London) – Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has published proposed legislation that, if passed, would undermine children’s rights to education, health, and information, Human Rights Watch said.
On May 4, 2023, the PiS announced its draft amendment to the Education Law Act called “Protect Children, Support Parents,” which would restrict access to schools for nongovernment organizations providing sexuality education. Such groups are often the only reliable source of this material due to a restrictive and discriminatory national curriculum. PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński said the proposed law is intended to curb the “sexualization of children” and “all sorts of strange ideas.” This is the government’s latest attempt to eliminate comprehensive sexuality education.
“Sex education run by expert nongovernmental organizations is crucial in a country where the official curriculum results in children rarely learning about their own bodies, consensual relationships, and reproductive health,” Kyle Knight, a senior researcher on health and LGBT rights at Human Rights Watch said. “Far from ‘sexualizing children,’ these groups provide critical lessons about relationships, autonomy, safety, and health.”
If the proposed draft becomes law, it would have a chilling effect on nongovernment organizations and the few teachers who provide comprehensive sexuality education, and make it excessively difficult for Polish schools to address topics of sexual orientation, gender identity, and reproductive rights, Human Rights Watch said. This bill is the latest in a string of dangerous curbs on sexual, reproductive, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights that European Union leaders should examine as they gather to discuss Poland and Hungary’s respect for EU laws and values on May 30.
The new proposed law prohibits such groups from activities that “sexualize children,” which would likely restrict access for them providing age-appropriate education on sexual and reproductive health in kindergartens and primary schools, which includes students up to age 15. In high schools and professional and technical schools, which include students up to age 20, the proposed law would require approval of the school’s principal and parents’ council – a body representing parents of the school’s students – before any nongovernment group enters the school. In addition, students participating in group-led educational activities would be required by law to provide written consent from their parents.
Even for organizations who pass these new hurdles to work in kindergartens or primary schools, the proposed law contains a vague definition of “sexualization of children,” meaning any organization providing information on sexual or reproductive health, healthy relationships, or sexual orientation and gender identity could run afoul of it. Past proposed legislation and statements by PiS politicians have defined “sexualization of children” as discussions of sexual health, intimate relationships, sexuality, LGBT people's lives, which PiS erroneously claims increases children's propensity to engage in sexual activity or identify as LGBT.
Nongovernmental organizations are often the only providers of comprehensive sexuality education in Poland. The national “Preparation for Family Life” curriculum currently taught in schools includes misinformation about reproductive health and sexuality and perpetuates myths and discriminatory stereotypes rather than provide evidence-based sex education in line with international and regional standards. Poland’s “Preparation for Family Life” course constitutes “abstinence-only” education, meaning its primary or exclusive purpose is preventing premarital sexual intercourse. Previous Ministry of Education guidance on the curriculum discouraged contraceptive use, stated that masturbation is linked to “addiction to pornography, addiction to sex,” and erroneously said that emergency contraception is an “early pregnancy termination drug because conception occurs in the fallopian tube and not in the uterus.” Without education offered by nongovernment groups, most students across Poland have no school-based exposure to scientifically accurate sexual health information.
Accurate and inclusive quality sex education helps reduce adolescent pregnancy, maternal mortality, and HIV, and promotes healthy relationships. Children have a right to age appropriate, inclusive sexual and reproductive health education, based on scientific evidence, Human Rights Watch said. Children’s right to information includes states not interfering with private parties’ provision of this information and also a positive responsibility to provide complete and accurate information necessary for the protection and promotion of rights, including the right to health.
The new law PiS is proposing is similar to legislation put forward twice by PiS politician and Minister of Education Przemysław Czarnek. President Andrzej Duda vetoed both versions of that bill, the latter following widespread protests from students, teachers, and civil society groups. PiS leaders have repeatedly used fearmongering around sexuality education to foster anti-LGBT and anti-choice sentiment and smear human rights defenders, accusing organizations and schools providing comprehensive sexuality education of threatening so-called traditional families and “morally corrupting” children.
An earlier bill introduced by right-wing PiS allies, currently with parliamentary committees, would amend the criminal code to criminalize “anyone who promotes or approves the undertaking by a minor of sexual intercourse or other sexual activity,” essentially criminalizing anyone providing sexuality education or information, with potential prison sentences of up to three years. Under the PiS government, teachers and school administrators who support sexuality education or reproductive rights have been harassed, dragged through administrative proceedings, and had their jobs threatened. Since coming to power in 2015, PiS has carried out a sustained attack on sexual and reproductive health rights, LGBT rights, and human rights defenders.
PiS has presented the draft as a “citizens’ initiative,” meaning party members need to collect 100,000 signatures by July 19 for it to be introduced in parliament. Unlike bills introduced by politicians, citizens’ initiatives do not require a public consultation period, which accelerates the legislative procedure.
PiS leader Kaczyński has used “sexualization of children” rhetoric to promote an anti-LGBT agenda in the past. In an April 2019 speech about “protecting families,” he committed to defending Polish families from being destroyed and children from being sexualized. By the end of 2019, nearly 100 anti-LGBT resolutions – known as “LGBT Ideology Free Zones”– had been declared by municipal and regional governments. Fifty-one officially remained in place at this writing. Kaczyński has said women’s rights protesters demonstrating against a near-ban on abortion are “attacking our country, fatherland” and called them “evil.” He has claimed young women’s alcohol consumption is to blame for Poland’s low birth rate.
“Access to information about gender and sexuality is already bleak for youth in Poland,” Knight said. “This proposed law doesn’t protect anyone, but it does cut off kids from the services they need to thrive, and in some cases even survive.”