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Immigrant girls and sex education - who knows best?

Published: 07 Mar 2008 15:48 GMT+01:00
Updated: 07 Mar 2008 15:48 GMT+01:00

Parents, students, or the state: who knows best? David Landes looks at the thorny issue of sex education and editorial reactions to a Liberal Party proposal aiming to bar parents from exempting their children, particularly girls, from classes.

On Thursday, representatives of the Liberal Party made headlines with a controversial proposal to do away way a rule exempting school children from attending compulsory lessons in subjects considered objectionable by their parents.

The rule came about in 1969 to allow students of different faiths to skip Christian religious instruction, which was compulsory in Swedish schools at the time. In 1996, the exemption was expanded to allow students to skip otherwise obligatory lessons, such as sex education, under “special circumstances”.

The Liberals’ suggestion received generally positive reviews from several newspapers, although support is often accompanied by an acknowledgment that questions about the balance between religious beliefs and societal norms are never easy to answer. Nor are those about who, ultimately, should have control over what students learn.

The Sydsvenskan newspaper feels that maintaining a multicultural society requires the state to play a more active role, and thus supports changes to the school law because “the exception is on its way to being transformed into a rule” in the absence of any action by the government.

Religion has its given place in people’s lives. But in school, religious convictions ought to be studied, rather than be in control,” concludes the paper.

In its response, Aftonbladet first takes time to review criticism coming from the teachers unions and parties on the left, who feel that the proposal is unfair to students by forcing them to choose sides in a dispute between their parents and the schools. In addition, the Christian Democrats oppose the changes because, according to Aftonbladet, “in their morally conservative view of society, a family’s opinion is more important than an individual’s right.”

In laying out its case for supporting the suggestion, however, the paper takes the opposite view, arguing that the rights of students as individuals are at least equal to, if not greater than, the beliefs held by any particular set of parents.

“All students, irrespective of which parents they have, should participate in lessons that are included in the school’s curriculum. Swedish law must stand on the individual’s and students’ side. Girls and boys who want to participate in all courses shouldn’t be restricted from doing so by their parents’ values,” writes Aftonbladet.

Doing away with the exception is a good thing, according to Aftonbladet, because it gives individual students more power to decide for themselves whether or not they want to attend lessons which their parents find objectionable.

Rather than focus on the rights of children, Per Gudmundson of Svenska Dagbladet chooses instead to frame the issue as one that highlights a fundamental question for society:

“Should the parents or the state make decisions for children?” he asks.

Gudmundson first describes how the Amish community in the United States has received a special exception from the standard American curriculum, creating a situation in which parents can exercise an added measure of influence over their children’s education.

“Is that so dangerous?” ask Gudmundson, before he then reviews some of the eye-catching statistics from the doctoral dissertation the Liberal Party cites in arguing for scrapping the suggestion.

The study finds, for example, that 18 percent of foreign-born girls don’t participate in sex education classes, compared with 2 percent for those of Swedish background. Overall more than a quarter of foreign-born students are affected by restrictions in school placed on them by their parents.

According to the study, 62 percent of immigrant girls polled in the study aren’t allowed to have a boyfriend. The corresponding figure for girls with Swedish background is 3 percent. In addition, 30 percent of foreign born girls can’t go to night clubs and 19 percent aren’t allowed to choose their own friends, leading Gudmundson to assert that, while life in the classroom may be restrictive, life outside the classroom may be even more so.

“These figures indicate that the areas governed by law, such as school, create more opportunities for girls to participate than exist in areas where the law lacks influence, like at a night club,” writes Gudmundson before asking finally, “Who ever said that freedom was easy?”

Expressen, on the other hand, cautions from drawing too many general conclusions from a relatively small sample size. The paper points out that the study is based on the responses of 1,314 students from schools with a proportionately higher number of foreign born students, including only 64 students from the Middle East.

“The truth is that neither the Education Minister, the National Agency for Education, nor anyone else has any idea how extensive forced absences really are,” writes Expressen.

Nevertheless, the paper argues that something needs to be done.

“All students have a right to learn to swim or be educated about how to protect themselves from HIV,” it writes.

“In reality, however, certain children are forced by their parents—especially Muslim girls—to skip a number of lessons. At worst these girls are subjected to a terrible brand of honour-related oppression that puts their lives at risk. A change to the school law can thus be a small tool for them to break down such oppressive structures,” concludes Expressen.

Where the main newspapers stand:

Dagens Nyheter, "independently liberal", Stockholm-based, owned by the Bonnier family.

Svenska Dagbladet, "independently liberal-conservative",

Stockholm-based, owned by Norwegian media company Schibsted.

Göteborgs-Posten, "independently liberal",

Gothenburg-based, owned by the Stampen media group.

Sydsvenska Dagbladet (Sydsvenskan), "independently liberal", Malmö-based, owned by the Bonnier family.

Aftonbladet, "independently Social Democrat", Stockholm-based, owned by trade union federation LO and Norwegian media company Schibsted.

Expressen, "independently liberal", Stockholm-based, owned by the Bonnier family.

David Landes (david.landes@thelocal.se)

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