Conservative “pro-family” advocacy groups with US ties are targeting increasingly inclusive sex education lesson plans being developed by the South African education department as part of the life orientation curriculum.
The three organisations are calling on civil society to mobilise a boycott of the new Comprehensive Sex Education (CSE) material. They argue that the content violates traditional Christian values and is dangerous to children.
The new lesson plans have not yet been released. But media reports suggest they include topics such as consent, gender and sexuality diversity, self-image, genital differences and changes, body diversity and touching oneself for pleasure.
According to the Department of Basic Education the purpose of CSE “is to ensure that we help learners build an understanding of concepts, content, values and attitudes related to sexuality, sexual behaviour change as well as leading safe and healthy lives”.
The narrative that sex education is dangerous to children is common among US conservative “pro-family” advocacy groups. The pro-family movement unites the anti-abortion and anti-gay movements that emerged in the US during the 1970s in response to the sexual revolution.
The pro-family movement advocates two main messages. The first is that the heterosexual nuclear family is the only “natural” form of kinship. The second is that the nuclear family is economically productive whereas others – such as those involving LGBTIQ+ people and non-nuclear families – are social threats and economic burdens. These messages reinforce intolerance, and can even inspire hatred, towards LGBTIQ+ people.
My own research showed that US Christian right organisations have increasingly grown transatlantic networks in Africa. As part of their expansion strategy they provide “mentorship” to support the establishment of pro-family civil society organisations and campaigns.
Efforts to stop the government’s proposed inclusive approach to education about sexuality could have serious negative consequences. This is because research has shown that it can have a profoundly positive effect on young people. For example, information about contraception, masturbation and consent makes it more likely that young adolescents will have safer sexual encounters. And an emphasis on the benefits of abstinence – as well as information about contraception and disease prevention – has been shown to help reduce rates of teen pregnancy and the transmission of sexually transmitted infections. The new content has been developed to combat sexual abuse and the country’s extreme levels of gender-based harm and femicide.
As more countries adopt CSE into school curricula to address these issues, it has become a focal point of “pro-family” activism.
Rise of the US right in Africa
In South Africa, several organisations recently launched a campaign against the new curriculum called the Protect Children South Africa Coalition. According to organisers Family Watch International the stated purpose was to stop the “exploitation” of children, which they allege occurs through CSE programmes.
The coalition has circulated an online letter to present to the education department. It states:
Highly controversial CSE programs … indoctrinate youth to embrace radical sexual and gender ideologies, promote sexual rights and abortion, and encourage promiscuity, high-risk sexual behaviours, and sexual pleasure, even to the very youngest of children.
These campaigns are ideologically related to global anti-gender campaigns that have banned gender studies, such as those in Brazil and Hungary, and ongoing efforts to do the same in western Europe.
What is pro-family ideology?
The pro-family movement is against any family formation that does not resemble the western-centric, heterosexual, nuclear family model.
This includes households headed by single parents or by same-sex parents, and polygamous families.
The core of these campaigns dates back to the 1990s. That’s when anti-gay and anti-abortion activists joined forces in the International Organisation for the Family. This was previously the World Congress of Families.
The movement began to call itself “pro-family”, arguing that the nuclear family is the foundation of every civilisation known to history. It says the nuclear family is under attack by LGBTIQ+ and feminist movements.
“Pro-family” organisations based in the US have been working to spread their message in African countries since the early 2000s. They have, at times, done so by positioning themselves as allies of the previously colonised.
Yet, the ideas on which these movements are based have colonial roots. Colonial notions of racial superiority and inferiority were constructed through ideas of what constituted “civilised” sex and gender practices.
The US pro-family movement has had numerous successes in advancing policy agendas in African countries and elsewhere in the global south. This is well illustrated in the work of Dr Kapya Kaoma, a Zambian researcher based at Political Research Associates.
In one report, titled Colonising African Values: How the U.S. Christian Right is Transforming Sexual Politics in Africa, Kaoma shows how pro-family activism has transplanted US culture war debates to African countries.
In addressing those who oppose CSE, it is important that decision makers also recognise the geo-political networks of power supporting these agendas. Fortunately, the SA government shows no signs of backing down on the sex education curriculum.
A great many young South Africans would be at risk if it were to do so.
Haley McEwen is a research coordinator at the University of the Witwatersrand. McEwen does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.