Health and education officials in Moldova are initiating a sex education program in middle schools in an effort to stop the growing number of abortions and sexually transmitted diseases among teenagers. Similar projects are already under way in Romania and Bulgaria.
Prague, 22 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Moldova is launching a project to teach sex education to teenagers in the country's capital, Chisinau.
The project was started by Moldova's Family Planning Association, which belongs to the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) -- a global organization linking national family planning associations in more than 180 countries. It will be run jointly with Moldova's Education Ministry, which will provide the funding.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Manana Blaja, executive director of Moldova's Family Planning Association, explained the scope of the sex education courses in the capital.
"Right now, we are expecting to introduce such an educational course in about 30 schools in the municipality of Chisinau. This will be a formal campaign and a formal educational course."
Moldova is Europe's poorest country, with an average monthly salary of some $30, and its education infrastructure is abysmal. More than half of the country's 4.5 million people live in rural areas and have limited access both to up-to-date medical information and decent health care.
Amid social and economic turmoil over the past decade, Moldova has experienced steady growth in the number of teenage pregnancies and abortions, as well as a significant rise in cases of sexually transmitted diseases.
Blaja says abortions are both legal and cheap in Moldova and that the number of abortions among 15- to 19-year-olds is alarmingly high -- about 60 per 100 pregnancies in the year 2000.
She says the large number of teenage pregnancies and abortions is due both to the relative lack of family planning and contraception information, as well as to a Soviet-inherited mentality. Sex education was taboo during Soviet times, and people were encouraged to marry and start a family at a young age.
Blaja says modern contraceptive methods used to be regarded as a sign of Western decadence:
"It was, like, ideology then. Contraception is coming from Western countries, and this is not good for us. That's why for a long time during communism, abortions [were] treated as the contraceptive method [of choice]."
Economic hardship and lack of proper sex education are also causing an explosion in the number of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in Moldova, with young people at the highest risk.
A dramatic increase in the number of those infected with syphilis was recorded between 1992 and 1999 -- from some 46 cases for every 100,000 inhabitants to almost 116 cases per 100,000. Blaja says people under the age of 20 account for more than 70 percent of STDs.
Out of Moldova's 1,200 registered cases of AIDS, more than half are people between 15 and 29 years old. Blaja says the number of people in Moldova infected with AIDS could be higher, since no accurate records are kept.
The new sex education program will be mostly based on a manual published by Moldova's Family Planning Association with support from the IPPF. The manual includes chapters on communication on sexuality, partner responsibility, and gender issues. The book also deals with anatomy and physiology, as well as with STDs and modern methods of contraception.
Blaja says specially trained personnel will teach the classes but that attendance will not be mandatory.
The IPPF has been running sex education programs for teenagers for several years in Romania and Bulgaria -- two other poor ex-communist countries in the region.
In Romania -- Moldova's western neighbor -- a five-year program called Vision 2000 began in 1998 in almost 40 high schools in three regions of the country -- Mures, Mehedinti, and Sibiu. It is funded jointly by the IPPF and Romania's Society for Contraceptive and Sexual Education.
Gabriela Schirea, coordinator of Vision 2000, says an evaluation was made among teenagers in the three regions to assess their knowledge about sex education and contraception before launching the program.
Schirea tells RFE/RL that the Vision 2000 program is expected to have reached thousands of teenagers when it concludes in June 2003.
"Our intention is that in the end we reach approximately 8,000 teenagers who could benefit from information regarding sexual education, behavior, attitude and relations with other people."
She says the program has been successful and that talks are under way with Romania's Education Ministry to introduce sex education classes on a permanent basis in as many schools as possible.
In Bulgaria, the IPPF is running another extensive sex education program in association with the Bulgarian Family Planning and Sexual Health Association (BFPA). The program was launched eight years ago in Sofia and was gradually extended to all of Bulgaria's major cities.
The executive director of the BFPA, Radosveta Stamenkova, says the program now covers almost 100 high schools in 19 cities and is expanding, with more instructors being trained by the existing 150 trainers -- many of them schoolteachers.
Stamenkova says the program has reached a new stage and is targeting marginalized and special needs groups, such as the blind and deaf:
"Another special target group we are working with -- besides blind and deaf young people -- are young people with criminal records, who are in penitentiary institutions, and also minority groups such as the Roma minority."
Stamenkova says results now show that young people in Bulgaria are better informed about contraceptive methods and family planning. For the first time, the number of abortions in Bulgaria dropped below the number of births in 2000.
She says the BFPA and the IPPF will launch an ambitious regional project this spring based on Bulgaria's experiences. The project will focus on the reproductive health and sexual education of Roma in Moldova, Slovakia, and Hungary and will be implemented in cooperation with family planning associations in the three countries.