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Romania gender equality under attack

[Brussels, 2 July 2020] 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 percent 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. 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).

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.

Romanian Women’s Lobby (National coordination of European Women’s Lobby) and FONSS (Federation of NGOs on Social Services) -57 NGOs- wrote letters to both Ministry of Interior in June 10th, 2020 and to private companies supporting the YouTuber to redraw their support on one hand and to express their deep dissatisfaction with the way in which the issue of violence against women and children was left out of the priority during the pandemic, the victims being almost impossible to receive help from the Romanian Police or shelter in quarantined social services. They requested to re-prioritize the fight against violence against women and children.

This past week a new law was passed, which imposes severe restrictions on what Romanian children can be taught about equality between women and men 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”. The amendment would ban teachers, school counsellors, academics, doctors, social workers, and non-governmental organisations from discussing topics related to gender equality. Romania’s leading universities and coalitions of NGOs have been quick to condemn the legislation, saying that it threatens academic freedom.

Both pieces of legislation now need to be signed off by the country’s president, Klaus Iohannis, and many organisations 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.

Last-minute sources from the Presidential Administration informed the news that the president sent to the Constitutional Court the project that removes sex education from schools.

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Loud and United to end violence against women and girls, European Women’s Lobby Conference, 6 December 2017, Brussels.

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