Sex and the Barrio: A Clash of Faith in Latin America

From the Winter 2011/2012 Faith issue

By Anna Edgerton and Ina Sotirova

BUENOS AIRES—On a cold and rainy evening, some 200 women march through the center of Buenos Aires to raise awareness about sexual violence. Despite the weather, many demonstrators flaunt their femininity in miniskirts and knee-high boots, their bare skin exposed to the chilly winter drizzle. This “Marcha de las Putas” is part of the global SlutWalk movement protesting the idea that women dressed in revealing clothing are asking to get raped. Among the leather and lace that stop traffic along the streets of the South American capital, a topless young woman with pierced nipples and tattoos marches alongside an 8-year-old girl accompanied by her mother and grandmother. The family is carrying a poster that declares in Spanish, “I’m a slut. You’re a slut. Your mom’s a slut.” As the women—and some male supporters—chant slogans affirming their right to decide who they want to sleep with, amused bystanders cheer, leering boys snap photos with camera phones, and elderly women mutter their disapproval.

The SlutWalk protests began last April in Toronto when a police officer told a university class that women should not dress like “sluts” if they don’t want to get raped. His comment and the consequent protests have inspired women around the world to organize similar demonstrations. In Latin America, where sexual violence and violence against women are serious problems, there is an urgent need to bring attention to these issues. SlutWalks have swept the region, taking place even in more conservative countries like Nicaragua and Guatemala. In Costa Rica, the SlutWalk in August took on a decidedly anti-Catholic tone, as protesters chanted, “Get your rosaries off our ovaries” and “Jesus loves sluts,” in response to a sermon from one of the country’s leading Catholic clergymen earlier that month. Women should dress modestly to avoid being “objectified,” he observed, adding that the purpose of sex is “fertilization.” The clash between traditional and feminist views escalated when the march reached the Metropolitan Cathedral of San José just as the faithful were leaving mass.


Attitudes toward sex and sexuality are evolving, if slowly, in Latin America. Much of the progress is determined by the vastly divergent power of the Catholic Church across the continent. Despite objection from Catholic officials, same-sex marriage is now legal in Mexico City and Argentina. Abortions are also legal in Mexico’s capital. Such progressive legislation speaks to an accelerating secularization, although the cultural shift is far from universal. In many parts of the region, conservative Catholic views on social issues continue to dominate the public and educational discourse, often to the detriment of the region’s poorest women and youth.

In Nicaragua, where the church still exerts strong influence, a law prohibits all abortions, including extreme cases such as pregnancies endangering the mother’s life or resulting from rape. Since the law was passed in 2006, mothers and doctors alike risk imprisonment if they are suspected of inducing or performing abortions. Although exact numbers are hard to find, dozens of women die of complications arising from the denial of medical procedures, maternal suicides, and illegal abortions.

Hundreds of women flooded the streets of Managua on September 28—the date designated since 1990 as the Day for the Decriminalization of Abortion in Latin America. They carried colorful cardboard butterflies, the symbol of this movement, to show solidarity with the women who have lost their lives as a result of the law. There was a similar protest on October 26, in recognition of the date five years earlier when the law was passed. One organizer, Magaly Quintana, says that in Nicaragua, where maternal mortality costs the lives of 100 women per 100,000 live births every year, a significant percentage could have been saved if emergency abortions were allowed. Maternal mortality could be further reduced with proper family planning, but here, as in much of the region, discussion of sexuality remains largely taboo. Moreover, access to sex education and contraception is limited, and teen pregnancies, sexual violence, and maternal death continue to affect women and their families.  

The Catholic Church has historically been a major force in the political and social affairs of the region, alternately aligning itself with those in power and standing up for the rights of the oppressed. Even today, the single most unifying cultural factor in Latin America is the Catholic faith—its belief-system woven deeply into the history and traditions of the region. Some countries, like Argentina, have been able to circumvent the influence of the church to educate people on safe sex, while elsewhere, especially in Central America, the church remains directly involved in the political process, and its conservative views on sex guide sexual and reproductive health policy.

Even among the faithful, however, the Vatican’s inflexible opposition to contraception and sexual education has been alienating, which has led some modern Catholics to embrace a more liberal interpretation of their religion. Groups like the Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir (cdd), an offshoot of the North American nonprofit Catholics for Choice, offer an alternative that reconciles their faith with contemporary thinking on reproductive rights and sexuality. These and other nongovernmental organizations are increasingly weighing in on social agendas and filling important gaps in sex education and family planning services.


With a population of 5.6 million, and a per capita income of barely $1,200 a year, Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere after Haiti. Its public policies are guided by “Christian and socialist ideals,” says President Daniel Ortega. This has important implications when it comes to sensitive social issues. “There is no division between religion-party-state-family in Nicaragua,” says Cecilia Espinoza of Ipas, a women’s rights group.

The relationship between church and state was not always as cozy as it is today, says veteran Nicaraguan journalist Tomas Stargardter. In the 1980s, when Ortega first came to power and steered the country toward the left, Nicaragua’s Catholic Bishops, headed by Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, strongly opposed his revolutionary government. Yet, as part of his electoral campaign upon his return to politics in 2006, Ortega sought the support of the Catholic Church, forming a pact with the same cardinal who was his most outspoken critic two decades earlier. “Everyone has a price,” Stargardter says, “and part of the cardinal’s price was the law prohibiting emergency abortions.”

Obando y Bravo’s rapprochement with Ortega has divided the Nicaraguan Catholic Church between those who support the president and those who oppose his government. Despite their differences, Stargardter adds, the church and the state—along with increasingly popular Protestant churches—have coalesced around a commonly held view on family and sexuality. The groups’ conservative attitudes prevail not only in important policy-making decisions, but in wider society as well.

“Here, people don’t talk about sexuality, but rather about reproduction,” says Andrea Luque, who works with the Centro de Información y Servicios de Asesoria en Salud (CISAS), a privately funded local health organization. Luque makes an important distinction between sexual and reproductive education. If sex is discussed at all, she explains, most schools teach the subject from a purely biological perspective. They leave out important issues like protection from STDs, pregnancy prevention, and sexual identity, all important tenets of a comprehensive approach to sexual health. Instead, she says, Catholic priests teach children that “having pleasure is a sin, that living your sexuality is a sin,” and promote a public discourse focused on abstinence, fidelity, and procreation.

Private schools do provide a more modern sexual education, starting to teach their pupils about safe sex when they are about 10 years old. In a country like Nicaragua, where 46 percent of the population lives on less than $1.15 a day, this disparity in access to information only widens the gap between rich and poor. The lack of information results in higher birthrates for the most impoverished, intensifying the cycle of poverty. 

What the church fails to see in its dogmatic approach to matters of sex and sexuality, says Stargardter, is that “it’s human nature.” Abstinence, he says, is an unrealistic expectation. Despite religious conservatism across Latin America, 22 percent of adolescent girls reported having sex before the age of 15, the highest rate of teen sex in the world, according to a 2011 UNICEF study. Latin America also has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancies, surpassed only by sub-Saharan Africa, according to the UN Population Fund, which notes that teenage fertility in the region has increased substantially over the past five decades, even as overall fertility has decreased. The fund points out that education and access to information and services “needed for young people to make responsible decisions continue to be insufficient.” The World Bank also identifies maternal mortality as a leading cause of adolescent deaths in the region.

Many young girls, “often sexually abused or raped, are dying because their bodies cannot support the pregnancies,” says Luque of cisas. The risk of complications during pregnancy and delivery for girls aged 15 to 19 is double the rate for women in their 20s, and five times as high for girls under 15, according to the UN Population Fund. In countries like Nicaragua, as well as Chile, Honduras, and El Salvador, where strict abortion laws make a mother’s health secondary to saving her unborn child, these complications often prove fatal.

Many adolescents choose to become sexually active at an early age. Acknowledging this as natural, Quintana from Nicaragua’s cdd notes, “there’s nothing you or I or anyone can do about that.” She says, “by denying them sexual education, you take away their ability to confront reality and to protect themselves from sexual violence.” Like most Nicaraguans, Quintana, now 59, was raised Catholic and has been religious her whole life. But she also believes that being Catholic should not strip a woman of her reproductive rights. “The hierarchy of the Catholic Church hasn’t listened to or taken into account the reality of women,” she says, “and has excluded the needs and opinions of certain social groups, like women and the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] community.”

cddaims to build a new spirituality that reconciles the Christian faith with more modern views of sex and sexuality, allowing “women to take ownership of their reproductive rights,” Quintana says. The organization’s motto, “sexual education to decide, contraception to avoid abortion, legal abortions to prevent death,” unites Catholic women and youth across a Latin American network that stretches from Argentina to Mexico, including 10 countries and the support of Catholics for Choice in Washington D.C. In Nicaragua, the organization is an important force behind the campaign for the decriminalization of abortion. This branch of cdd was established in 2006 in response to the law prohibiting emergency abortions, known as abortos terapéuticos. The group’s activities also include providing sexual education to university students and rural communities.

“Young people are thirsty for information,” Quintana says. “They need and want to learn about sexuality and are pleased to have the possibility of freely choosing their sexuality.” But, she says, in Nicaragua, where the conservative Catholic Church has retained its power over politics, “there’s no real sexual education, there’s no information, there’s no political will … and the kids are paying for it.”

The problem is not just the lack of information. Quintana says young people who seek contraception sometimes find their requests denied by health workers acting out of their own moral convictions. “Religious attitudes are very present in society,” Luque confirms, adding that this often frames the position of teachers, doctors, and nurses, making women and young people uncomfortable to speak about sex with the very professionals who are supposed to help and advise them.

Organizations like the cdd and cisas are crucial to the promotion of what she calls “responsible sexuality.” The extracurricular educational programs not only disseminate knowledge, information, and services about safe sex, but also train young leaders to educate their peers. cisas currently works with Nicaraguan youths of various Christian faiths, including students from three Catholic schools. Although Luque and her colleagues don’t teach formal classes, their programs depend on access provided by religious faculty. Whether they are allowed in the schools is “really a personal question” that comes down to the attitudes of the principals, she explains.

In May, the Nicaraguan government released its first “Teacher’s Guide for Sexual Education.” The document had been long in the making and was intended to be a comprehensive, even progressive manual. However, the Nicaraguan Catholic Church stepped in and asked for revisions, Luque says, adding that while the guide is an important step forward in a country where sexual education has never been a priority, the results are disappointing. The manual, she explains, fails to address such important issues as “teen pregnancy and its relation to sexual abuse, sexual diversity, and prioritizing condom-use as an effective method of prevention.”


In matters of sexuality and reproductive health, Argentina’s policies lie at the other end of the spectrum from Nicaragua. The Roman Catholic Church has historically been a major force in the social and political life of both states. The contrast between officially endorsed sexual education in Argentina and the grass-roots efforts to circumnavigate the Catholic Church in Nicaragua reveals a cultural transformation that is accelerating in the southern cone and floundering in Central America.   

In Argentina, sexual education is a right, guaranteed by law since 2002 when the National Program of Sexual Health and Procreation was created. This initiative lists education as a top priority—deemed necessary to enable people to “make decisions free from discrimination, coercion, or violence.” In 2006, the City of Buenos Aires took an important step toward meeting the goals of the National Program by passing a municipal law that reiterates the right to an integrated sexual education for all students. Even though this policy has yet to be universally implemented, the wide acceptance and enthusiasm for increased sexual awareness points to a country that is more progressive and less beholden to the Vatican than most in the region. 

Although three quarters of the population is nominally Catholic, only 20 percent of Argentines are actively practicing. Unlike in Central America, where many of those disenchanted with Catholicism join the even more conservative Evangelical churches, in Argentina, many Catholics are leaving organized religion altogether. “I consider myself Catholic, but I don’t practice,” says 23-year old Nadia Ferrari, one of the organizers of Argentina’s Marcha de las Putas. She remembers being taught in her Catholic high school that a woman should never open her legs. “They said that the best contraceptive is an aspirin, held between a girl’s tightly clenched thighs,” she recalls.

“I have a problem with the church, not the faith,” Ferrari says. “I distrust the church. I still haven’t found my place in the religious context, because I feel that the religion I belong to is against many of my personal beliefs. It also relegates me, as a woman, to a position of inferiority.” Wearing short jean shorts over black tights for the SlutWalk in Buenos Aires and shouting “No means no!” over the crowd, she has become one of the voices standing up for women’s rights in her country.

Mary Hunt, a Catholic theologian who lived in Argentina for two years during that country’s military dictatorship and continues to work with local religious and social organizations, says she has definitely noticed the dramatic decline of Catholicism in recent decades. “From 1980 until now, I’ve seen an enormous change in the culture,” she says, giving various reasons for the shift, including high levels of education and a more urbanized population. Argentina boasts a literacy rate of 97 percent, one of the highest in the region, while in Nicaragua it’s less than 70 percent. As is the case in other parts of the world, religion’s hold on society in this region seems to diminish as the population becomes better educated.

In addition, 92 percent of Argentines live in cities, compared to 57 percent of Nicaraguans. While as many as 90 percent of those in Argentina’s remote northwestern provinces identify themselves as Catholic, in Greater Buenos Aires that figure has fallen below 70 percent. With a quarter of the country’s population living in the capital and surrounding area, this signifies a major cultural shift with a substantial impact on the country’s educational and family planning policies. Argentina provides free birth control at schools and hospitals, and while abortion remains illegal, it is allowed in emergency situations—unlike in Nicaragua.

The Catholic Church’s waning position in Argentina can also be attributed to its complicity with the country’s “dirty war”—the period between 1976 and 1983 when state-sponsored violence under the military dictatorship led to the disappearance of as many as 30,000 people. Unlike their counterparts in Chile and Brazil who spoke out against oppression and political injustice, Argentina’s clergy had strong ties with the military. Catholic institutions and the dictatorship were so closely connected—not only were military leaders and clergy openly friends, but in some cases they came from the same upper-class families—as to implicate the church in the crimes committed by the military regime.

The depth and character of this relationship became more apparent during the tribunals revived by the late president Nestor Kirchner, husband of current president Cristina Kirchner. In 2007, an Argentine court convicted a Roman Catholic police chaplain of being an accomplice to torture and murder in clandestine centers where suspected left-wing radicals were held before they were “disappeared.” His sentencing was celebrated as the first reckoning for the country’s Catholic Church that cozied up to power when it should have been protecting its flock.

Since the return of democracy in 1983, any overt alliance with the church has been politically perilous, while holding perpetrators of past injustices accountable has boosted the popularity of both Kirchners. The country’s wounds are still raw, and evidence of unanswered questions and lingering suspicion surfaces at memorials to the disappeared and in headlines of new investigations.

Although Catholicism is still the cultural default in Argentina—as it is across much of Latin America—the church’s decline in social and political areas is reflected in such popular attitudes and progressive legislation as the legalization of same-sex marriage in July 2010. Argentina followed Mexico’s lead on this issue, as both traditionally Catholic countries beat New York State in recognizing the rights of homosexual couples. In Argentina, the move was surprisingly free of controversy, especially compared to the polemics surrounding the legalization of divorce in 1987. While the church sought to maintain marriage as the union between a woman and a man, the legislation on same-sex marriage was celebrated by most Argentines as a mark of modernity and progress.

Nevertheless, the country is still a long way from reaching the goals it set in its National Program of Sexual Health and Procreation. Sex education and access to information are not as widely available as the law mandates. Even though free birth control is available at public hospitals, Ferrari says many women don’t know about it. She also contends that girls are often ignorant about the pill and how it works. Peer education, she points out, continues to be the main source of information for many. “Young people consult each other. When they have the knowledge, they transfer it to one another, one friend to the next. This is why it’s important for them to have information,” she says.


Latin America is caught in a tug of war between social conservatism rooted in Catholic doctrine and the need to confront the realities of the modern world. Faced with the combined challenges of globalization, high rates of teenage pregnancies, and sexual violence, as well as the continued spread of HIV/AIDS, national and local leaders try to walk the line between accommodating the traditional power of the Catholic Church, complying with international agreements and scientific research, and discerning the position of their electorate.

In Nicaragua, despite the demonstrations for the decriminalization of abortion that swept the streets of Managua, all candidates for November’s presidential election oppose changing the law. Even on matters less controversial, such as guidelines for sex education, the government bends easily and all too often under pressure from the ranks of the Catholic hierarchy.

But other Latin American leaders are beginning to set aside the Vatican’s strict moral teachings in order to guarantee—at least on paper—the right and access to information on safe sex and family planning. Mexico City has even gone so far as to legalize abortion, although this has backfired in many of the country’s more conservative provinces, where the capital’s liberal move spurred a tightening of pre-existing abortion laws.

Yet, religion and sexual and reproductive health need not be at odds. Organizations like cdd are striving to build important bridges. “They propose an almost unthinkable union between feminism and Catholicism,” says Ferrari, the organizer of the SlutWalk in Buenos Aires. “They propose a continuation with faith,” but one that recognizes the social problems resulting from a lack of sex education, limited access to contraception, and the criminalization of all abortions. If the Catholic Church wants to appeal to the younger generation of Latinos, it will have to rethink its stance on sexual health and reproductive rights.

A growing number of Catholics believe that either the church must begin to conform to the new social realities of Latin America or risk being left behind. The new breed of Catholic leadership must face this pressing reality in a continent that has long been the core of the church’s growth and vitality.

“I don’t know if it could or wants to modernize,” Ferrari says of the Catholic Church. “It’s difficult, because they respect the original traditions on which the church was founded. They respect these laws or norms without question and without considering that we live in a new time, with a new society,
mentality, and lifestyle.”



Anna Edgerton, a journalist based in New York, is a former editorial assistant at World Policy Journal. She recently returned from Buenos Aires where she worked at the Argentine newspaper Clarín. Ina Sotirova is a multimedia journalist based in New York who has previously worked in Nicaragua.

[Photo by Anna Edgerton]

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