When María Amarilla was eleven years old, she was sexually abused by a family member. “For years I remained silent because I didn’t know it was wrong and didn’t know who to talk to,” she told openDemocracy.
The abuse “lasted for a while, and when my school organised a spiritual retreat I tried to talk to someone, but everything the girls heard there was about our ‘sins’: the clothes we wore, the words we used. So I shut up.”
At the age of fifteen, Amarilla – who is now a spokesperson for the National Union of Student Centers of Paraguay – reported the abuse to police, “but trauma and psychological damage were still there. There’s no support from institutions.”
Her abuser was jailed but later released for health reasons. Amarilla says she tries not to think about him being free and living nearby.
Paraguay, landlocked and overshadowed by its giant neighbours including President Bolsonaro’s Brazil, is perhaps an unlikely battleground in a global war against gender equality involving powerful, politically connected US campaigners.
The country has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the Southern Cone (a South American sub-region comprising Argentina, parts of Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay). Sexual violence including rape is widespread. Every day, almost two girls between the ages of ten to fourteen give birth, according to official figures. In 2019, there were more than seven reports a day of sexual abuse against children.
Despite what right activists describe as a dire need for public sex education in this context, it is not provided in Paraguayan schools. In 2017, Paraguay also became the first country in the world to ban gender issues from school lessons. For activists defending sexual and reproductive rights, it is an alarming case study in how powerful ultra-conservatives are increasingly active, and connected, across borders.
In Paraguay, ‘anything related to gender has been forbidden and demonised’ since 2017
Paraguayan conservatives campaigning for the ban received help from a US Christian right ‘legal army’ called Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which provided legal arguments in support of their proposal to forbid ‘gender’ from classrooms. Based in Arizona, ADF spends millions of dollars around the world and specialises in fighting sexual and reproductive rights through the courts.
Paraguayan feminist lawyer Elba Núñez, from the regional network Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights (CLADEM), told openDemocracy that because of this ban “anything related to gender has been forbidden and demonised” in the education system since 2017.
Núñez had argued against the ban at a public hearing in Paraguay’s parliament, where she was shouted at and jeered by religious activists. Because of the ban, she says “we have to disguise materials on sexual and reproductive health, to rename the word ‘gender’, otherwise training in the educational system is forbidden.”
In addition, she described “a witch hunt that was launched against public institutions whose names include the term ‘gender’, such as the Supreme Court’s gender office, the Congress’s commission on gender equality or even the Ministry of Women.”
Conservative activists “chased us and our families” Núñez added. “They act as terrorists, scratch your car, take pictures of you, seek to intimidate you.”
A few other countries have seen similar campaigns. In 2018, Hungary banned gender studies programmes at university, removing their accreditation and funding.
Poland’s president Andrzej Duda promised to “ban the propagation of LGBT ideology in public institutions” during his 2020 re-election campaign. His government says it will remove LGBT studies from official rankings of academic journals.
Similar bills were introduced in a number of cities in Brazil, but that country’s supreme court also ruled them unconstitutional.
‘A lab for anti-rights ideas’
Paraguayan human rights activists are not surprised by the country’s leadership of the ultra-conservative agenda. “Paraguay is a lab for anti-rights ideas,” said one such activist, who follows these groups and requested anonymity.
“It was the first country in the region to execute a ‘parliamentary coup’ – against President Fernando Lugo in 2012,” she noted, as well as “the first to ban gender education and the first to adopt a register for the unborn”.
The government’s decree, issued in October 2017, banned “the distribution and use of printed or digital materials related to gender theory and/or ideology in public educational institutions”. The minister of education who signed the decree, Enrique Riera, promised in the congressional hearing that Núñez spoke at that he would personally “burn the books in a public square if they contained gender ideology”.
The ban followed conservative campaigns targeting guidelines and teacher training on rights-based sexual education, including principles of gender equality and non-discrimination. These materials had been produced by civil society groups with support from the European Union and United Nations agencies.
At the time, Paraguay was facing questions from a UN committee on why it had not adopted policies against gender-based violence and discrimination, as required by the international Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.
The committee queried the “complete absence of the term ‘gender’” from a 2016 law to prevent violence against women. It also asked why ‘gender’ had been banned from schools, and why comprehensive sexuality education had not been introduced despite the country’s high rates of sexual violence and early pregnancies.
It concluded that Paraguay was “facing a backlash on women’s rights in legislation and political and daily life”.
Paraguay’s minister of women’s issues at the time, Ana María Baiardi, acknowledged before the UN committee her own “concern over the potential impact” of the 2017 gender decree. But she said she was reassured by the education ministry that the ban was only a “temporary measure” until all materials were reviewed by a committee of concerned parties.
That committee was never set up, the review never happened, and the ban on gender in schools remains in effect, despite a new government taking office in 2019. The current minister of education, Eduardo Petta, did not reply to several requests for comments from openDemocracy.
The 2017 ban effectively froze any move to introduce comprehensive sexuality education, according to activists. In 2019, authorities banned new sex education guidelines for teachers produced by a respected human rights group, calling their contents “libertine”.
An alternative government plan launched in November 2020 to tackle abuses of children’s and adolescents’ fundamental rights (from malnutrition to sexual violence) was successfully opposed by the same groups that campaigned for the gender ban in education, arguing that it too was based on ‘gender ideology’.
Help from the US
The 2017 ban marked the climax of a campaign against ‘gender ideology’ in schools led by the Catholic Church and a Paraguayan coalition called Somos Muchos Muchos Más (roughly translated as We are Many Many More), which is coordinated by Paraguayan evangelical pastor Miguel Ortigoza, who is also a member of the US Christian conservative group Capitol Ministries.
After international human rights groups including Amnesty International spoke out against the ban, Alliance Defending Freedom stepped in, sending a memo (seen by openDemocracy) to Paraguayan conservatives providing legal arguments to defend the anti-gender measures.
That memo (which seems to have been written in haste, since it has various grammatical and punctuation errors in Spanish) claims that the international Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and other such treaties “are not binding for any country” and that Paraguay can defy them.
Signed by ADF’s lawyer for Latin America, Neydy Casillas, the memo says it was written in response to requests for support from Paraguayan campaigners.
ADF is one of twenty US Christian right groups that spent at least $44 million in Latin America over the period 2007–18, plus another $20 million in Mexico and Canada, an openDemocracy investigation revealed in October.
It is not one of the biggest spenders in Latin America, but it is one of the most visible groups in legal and political debates, including against the Organisation for American States (OAS).
ADF’s 2017 memo to its Paraguayan allies says the CEDAW convention “never mentions gender”, which is “a failed vision that has been adopted by international institutions… [that] deny the biological nature of persons”.
It also argues that neither the UN’s sustainable development goals, nor the 2013 Montevideo consensus on population and development, require governments to “impose” this “vision in educational curricula”. Paraguay, it says, has “no legal obligation” to teach students about gender equality.
The 2017 memo wasn’t Neydy Casillas’s first interaction with Paraguayan allies. The ADF lawyer visited Paraguay several times before and after the memo was written.
In September 2016, she participated in a conference at the Paraguayan supreme court and met local conservative legislator Olga Ferreira a few days before Ferreira introduced a bill in congress to establish an official register for “unborn children”.
Such registers have become touchstone campaign issues for ultra-conservative groups that oppose abortion in all circumstances. Paraguay was the second country to introduce an official register like this (and the first in Latin America), after Austria.
These ‘copy-and-paste’ initiatives proved embarrassing when an Argentinian state-level congresswoman failed to remove from the text of her proposed bill the names and numbers of Paraguayan laws cited as precedents.
Casillas returned to Paraguay in 2018 and spoke in parliament about “the family in danger” and protecting “Paraguayan sovereignty” – despite being on the payroll of a US group fighting to limit reproductive and sexual rights around the world.
ADF, Paraguayan pastor Miguel Ortigoza and We are Many Many More did not respond to openDemocracy’s requests for comments on this article
* Additional research by Lou Ferreira