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Romania’s conservatives take an axe to gender equality and sex education

A referendum in October 2018 that, if successful, would have redefined the understanding of the word ‘family’ in the Romanian constitution as “a man and a woman” was crushingly defeated when little over 20 per cent of the country’s electorate turned out to vote, well short of the 30 per cent turnout figure required for its result to be valid.

After the hugely embarrassing failure of the referendum, which cost 40 million euros of public money to organise and would have stripped single parent units of their status as a family and ruled out the legalisation of same-sex marriage for a generation, many people in Romania predicted the end of its initiators, the Family Coalition (Coaliţia pentru Familie).

They were wrong.

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While the Coalition is (officially at least) no longer active as a campaign group, it still regularly uses its social media accounts to rail against the Romanian LGBTQ community and their campaign for tolerance and equal rights. It last week reprimanded Romania’s Student Council (Consiliul Național al Elevilor) for calling on school pupils to be more tolerant towards their LGBTQ colleagues.

Romania’s conservatives however have not kept their ire solely for the country’s LGBTQ community. They have other targets too.

“The ultra-conservative movement has contested Romania’s adoption of the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, on the grounds of it being a tool of the so-called ‘gender ideology’ agenda,” says Carmen Radu of Asociația FRONT, a Romanian women’s organisation. “It is actively pushing an anti-abortion, ‘pro-life’ agenda that has successfully managed to infiltrate itself into hospitals, where many doctors now refuse to perform otherwise legal abortions by invoking moral grounds, thus leaving many regions with no actual access to abortion; is actively pressuring women from smaller communities, through religious marriage counselling, to remain in violent marriages and to drop charges against their aggressors; and is trying to push religious figures into the political realm and into influential positions, such as into the National Council for Combating Discrimination.”

The most recent target of Romania’s conservatives however has been sex education.

On June 3, a group of Romanian MPs and senators known as the Parliamentary Prayer Group, which includes prominent supporters of the Family Coalition, succeeded in amending a law – proposed by the Save Romania Union (USR), the one genuinely progressive party in Romania’s parliament – that would have made a modicum of sex education mandatory in Romania’s schools. As a result of the amendment, a much watered-down form of sex education will now only be taught to pupils if their parents explicitly request so. The amendment even went so far as to remove the phrase “sex education” entirely, replacing it with the anodyne term “health education”.

While the law in its original form would have seen sex education taught for just one hour, once a term, it was a start, and a step forward for a country in which more than half of the country’s teenagers become sexually active before the age of 16. Of those, more than 60 per cent admit to having at least one sexual encounter without taking any contraceptive precautions.

Romania’s teenage birth and abortion statistics are therefore unsurprisingly shocking.

Teenage girls give birth to one in eight of Romania’s first-born children. In Denmark, by comparison, where sex education has been mandatory since 1970, just one child in a hundred is born to a teenager. Romania also has the European Union’s second-highest rate of abortions per 1,000 live births (359), behind only Bulgaria (equally adverse to sex education; 380/1,000). In Denmark, the abortion rate is again far lower: 265 per 1,000 live births.

“For several decades Romania’s communist regime imposed a state policy of forced reproduction that led to catastrophic consequences,” says Ana Maița, president of Mame pentru Mame (Mothers for Mothers), a Romanian NGO. “The policy led to generations of unwanted pregnancies and births, a huge mortality rate for women who attempted to terminate unwanted pregnancies using improvised methods and the moral degradation of maternity services which were transformed, from a body of medical services intended to help women and babies have a safe and comfortable experience before birth, during birth and after birth, into a factory production line for women to produce live babies in a time-efficient manner with little regard to the psycho-emotional well-being of either mother or child.”

Romania’s lack of sex education leaves teenagers at the mercy of the internet, both pornography and increasingly toxic influencers, such as the YouTuber Alexandru Bălan, arrested on June 9 after it emerged that he had posted a video in which he appears to condone rape, paedophilia and violence against girls.

Bălan, known as Colo, whose YouTube channel has more than 850,000 subscribers, primarily teenage boys, was later released pending a full police inquiry but in a first for Romania was forbidden from posting online content during the investigation.

Perhaps more troubling even than Bălan’s shocking video was the reaction to his arrest: he did not lack support, and the young woman who alerted police to his sickening content was subject to a torrent of online abuse. This suggests that a culture of toxic masculinity abounds amongst many Romanian teenage males.

“Rape culture is blooming in the midst of young generations in Romania in the void created by the blockade put up by conservative and religious political figures to stop comprehensive sex education from being taught in school,” Maița tells Emerging Europe. “Intolerance and discrimination of the LGBTQ community are maintained at high levels and they breed violence against members of the community. Public discourse on social platforms has become more and more aggressive against activists for women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, and unfortunately this hate speech comes from young individuals – which means that Romania is failing in taking forward steps in these human rights issues from a societal perspective. The sad truth is that in some respects, the current situation is worse than in the 1990s.”

This past week a new law was passed, which imposes severe restrictions on what Romanian children can be taught about gender equality at school, and what subjects university professors can discuss with their students.

The law makes specific reference to “gender ideology”, which can no longer be broached in any educational institution. One of the law’s initiators, Senator Cristian Lungu, says that it forbids the separation of the concepts of “sex” and “gender” – which he believes are one and the same – and will help prevent “students born boys, with male genitals, who today decide they are girls” from making use of female toilets.

A far more pertinent concern regarding toilets might be why so many schools and kindergartens in Romania still lack indoor sanitary facilities. There has been no rush to legislate against such deprivations, nor, as Radu adds, “does anyone appear to care for the safety of women when underage girls are being killed by aggressors already well-known to the ever-dismissive police”.

“Beyond the severe misunderstanding and mystical distortion of what gender is scientifically, the law aims at keeping school premises under the strict control of religious, ultra-conservative hands,” Radu tells Emerging Europe. “Not only does this mean that extremely important topics such as gender equality, stereotypes and gender violence will no longer be allowed in schools or universities, but that the existence of any gender non-conforming thoughts, queer and trans personal identities will be severely threatened and subject to even more violence.”

Ana Maița agrees. “The amendment positions gender as an invented ideological construct and bans ‘theories and opinion on gender where it is a separate concept from biological sex’,” she says. “The amendment would ban teachers, school counselors, academics, doctors, social workers and non-governmental organisations from discussing topics related to gender identity, gender equality or transgender issues. These two amendments basically place any teacher who introduces any notion of sex education to pupils without the written consent of their parents, or any teacher and professor who discusses gender identity in any capacity, in a very dangerous position.”

Romania’s leading universities have been quick to condemn the legislation, saying that it threatens academic freedom.

“We find it stupefying that an academic theory can be forbidden by law,” said the Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj in a statement. “It places a question mark against the legality of a number of existing courses and research programmes.”

Romania’s National School of Political and Administrative Studies (SNSPA) was even more direct.

“We find it regrettable that subjects which can have important consequences for Romanian society are the subject of laws made in a superficial way, without any real understanding, and without the consultation of relevant social partners,” the university said. “Furthermore, the activity of universities has been blocked by political machinations, with politicians once again stamping all over the autonomy of universities.”

Radu agrees. “We are still unsure of how this will impact gender studies or social sciences departments that carry at their core the notion of gender as a basic, scientific concept. If we are to look at our neighbour Hungary, where gender studies programmes were banned, then we can expect this law to have a similar, negative impact,” she says.

Both pieces of legislation now need to be signed off by the country’s president, Klaus Iohannis, and many organisations, including Radu’s and Maița’s, are lobbying hard for the president to send them back to parliament.

It has been suggested that he will indeed do just that, at least in the case of the anti-gender equality teaching bill, which most experts believe in any case breaches the country’s constitution and the Istanbul Convention, which despite conservative opposition Romania has both signed and ratified.

A Pride parade in the Romanian capital Bucharest

Mr Iohannis has long championed the cause of Romania’s minorities, and although he did not boycott the 2018 referendum (as president he had a moral obligation to vote) he turned up at his local polling station just minutes before it closed, so as not to mobilise his supporters.

As Carmen Radu points out, Hungary has recently passed similar legislation, as has Poland’s deeply conservative ruling party. Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, has promised to tighten restrictions further should he be reelected in an election scheduled for the end of this month.

Where Romania differs from both Hungary and Poland, however, is that the driving force for laws against LGBTQ rights and sex education is not one, far-right ruling party, but a conservative coalition of influential MPs, senators, the Orthodox church, and pressure groups – such as the Family Coalition – from across the political spectrum.

“Only this weekend we came to understand that these MPs who have formed the Parliamentary Prayer Group are connected to an international network called ‘The Fellowship’ that influences, with no democratic mandate whatsoever, through its members, the pushing of a Christian, conservative agenda,” says Maița “I find it very dangerous that MPs who have run for office and have been elected as members of various political parties, unite and act on behalf of a private enterprise with a clear political and social agenda. This cross-party informal force has proven very active in the Romanian parliament in this last year and unfortunately, very successful in its political endeavours.”

The crusade against LGBTQ rights and sex education in Romania therefore unites left-wing, anti-Western, pro-Russian groups with right-wing nationalists. It also uniquely places the powerful Romanian Orthodox church, the Catholic church and many Protestant churches on the same side.

“Romanian conservatives simply imitate what American conservatives oppose, which in turn is very similar to what Russian conservatives combat as well,” says Maița. “And what they all fear is the kind of social change that they know will, in time, weaken or even obliterate the institutions of power that favour them politically and economically. The deep social shifts that women’s rights and LGBT rights bring about are indeed game changers for the Western world and the conservative establishment, which is essentially patriarchal, fears the consequences of these changes on its political power, social influence and mostly on its wealth. And conservatives have built their power, influence and wealth, over the span of the last 2,000 years, on the current state of social models: women primarily assuming the path of motherhood instead of a career, the nuclear family model, zero social acceptance of the LGBT community, a primarily male work culture and gender-stereotypical career choices.”

Carmen Radu believes, however, that the conservative sentiment may increasingly be out of step with the population at large, at least when it comes to sex education.

“It is of course worrying for us to see these developments underway, particularly when we are fighting with our bare hands against a big-pocketed, sharp-toothed bear; and particularly when violence against women and the LGBTQ community is still heavily overlooked and dismissed by the authorities – that is, when they do not inflict it themselves, as regularly happens,” she says. “However, we also believe that this comes to show that the conservatives are progressively losing the grasp they might have had on people’s lives and worldviews and are thus pushing for more and more of a formally constraining and political power.”

“When it comes to women’s and LGBTQ issues, Romania is still overall a conservative country,” she adds. “As citizens of this country, politicians reflect these views themselves, though it seems they may be even more conservative than many citizens, especially in urban settings. The reason could be a mix of their own prejudice and lack of knowledge (they themselves are not educated on the matter), populism and nationalism – they don’t want to lose votes if they support ideas that are too progressive for Romania. Although if this were to be true, they should understand their target audiences better: for example, studies show that a large majority of Romanians support the case of sexual education in schools.”

Ana Maița believes that a world where women are treated as true equals and the LGBTQ community is fully accepted and integrated socially is a world where concepts of family, child rearing, work culture, career choices naturally become flexible, versatile and inclusive, and that this is what conservatives are really fighting against.

“They know this will rock their boat and will most probably take away from their political power, their social influence and what they fear most, their wealth,” she says, and concludes that there is a great deal of work for organisations such as her’s still to do.

“Unfortunately, the women’s rights movement is quite young in Romania and does not have the wide popular support it has in other countries,” she says. “But the good thing is women’s rights activists always back up LGBTQ rights organisations and we stand united when basic human rights come under attack. We are a small but supportive community of activists and we do our best to generate positive changes in Romanian society.”

Carmen Radu is equally determined to bring about this positive change.

“We will not give up that easily and we are delighted to see newer feminist generations coming through with an even greater thirst for change,” she says. “Young women and queer people are very aware and sick of the violence they face on a daily basis.”

Top photo: Octav Ganea / Inquam Photos

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