The Constitutional Court stops sex education in Croatia

by Amir Hodžić

© Matej Celar

Amir Hodžić holds a BA in Sociology and a MA in Gender and Culture Studies. For the past sixteen years Amir has been involved in research, consultancy, education and activism related to sex/gender equality, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and LGBTTIQ issues. Amir works with and for various local, regional and international stakeholders.

On May 22nd 2013 the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Croatia ruled to suspend the implementation of a Health Education (HE) curriculum in elementary and secondary schools. Objections to the curriculum were filed by two faith-based civil society organizations (CSOs), one minor right-wing political party and several citizens, as a part of a fierce Church-led campaign against one of the HE modules entitled Sex/Gender Equality and Responsible Sexual Behavior. This sex education module, together with other three modules (Healthy Living, Prevention of Violent Behavior, and Prevention of Addictions), was introduced to schools in September 2012 as the new HE program. It was the first time in the history of Croatian schooling that comprehensive and systematic teachings about sexuality became an element of official curricula.
During the last two decades only certain components of sex education, mostly information on anatomy and reproductive sexuality, have been included in the biology curriculum. In 2008, an attempt to introduce systematic sex education classes failed after the evaluation study of two pilot programs ‘revealed’ no significant shifts in students’ knowledge. At that time, the Ministry of Science, Education and Sport (MSES) argued that sex education is already present in schools through a so-called “integrative educational model” and that “health education is no less present in Croatian schools than in the EU” (Slobodna Dalmacija, December 18, 2008). This outcome came on the heels of an intense public debate between proponents of abstinence-only approaches and those in favor of a comprehensive model. Therefore, it could be argued that a pressure from religious authorities and their satellite CSOs played an important role in shaping this MSES (in)action.


Four years later and after the governmental change, in the autumn of 2012, a more organized cluster of the Church-affiliated CSOs started a campaign against the new sex education model developed by the MSES’s appointed commission. Their main complaints were related to discussions on homosexuality, masturbation, pornography, differentiation between sex and gender, and gender identities and roles. They framed their claims within the context of rights of parents to decide on the upbringing of their children and in reference to the proposed module representing an attack on traditional Croatian values. Promoting the confining of sexuality issues to the private sphere and within a traditional (hetero-cultural) national context, they argued that HE introduces “homosexual propaganda into schools” and that “gender ideology is contrary to scientific facts and it destroys a sexual identity of adolescents” (Novi List, November 2, 2012).
Besides the mobilization of faith-based CSOs, the Church has also explicitly railed against the sex education module. During Christmas holidays in 2012, Croatian Bishops’ Conference published a leaflet asking parents if they agree that “a child will learn that the homosexual act is as natural and as equal as the heterosexual one” and that “a child will become indoctrinated with gender ideology” (Croatian Bishops’ Conference, 2012). The leaflet was distributed utilizing the two biggest national retail chains, thus exposing the Church’s range of interest and close relations between religious institutions and the politics of private capital.


Finally, at the beginning of April 2013, faith-based CSOs filed a complaint to the Constitutional Court demanding examination of the sex education module’s content, claiming it imposes a specific “worldview” and “ideology” and is in violation of the Croatian Constitution and several national and international laws. In their assessment, members of the Court did not consider the contents and “values” of the curriculum, but have rather scrutinized the enacting procedure. In their decision they noted that the MSES failed in complying with the proscribed procedures, as it did not consult the National Council for Education and Parents’ Councils, did not organize a public debate before initiating the HE program, nor did comply with deadlines for publishing a decision about the implementation of the curriculum in the Official Gazette.   
This Constitutional Court’s verdict is exceptional, and can easily be perceived as politically conditioned for several reasons. While many other complaints to the same Court are being evaluated for many months, even years, this one was promptly addressed and processed in less than two months. In addition, as the MSES reported, there was no public debate for any of the new curricula implemented in the last ten years, nor was any published in the Official Gazette, stressing that a Catholic Instruction curriculum for secondary schools was passed in 2004 in the same manner as this “disputable” HE curriculum. On the other hand, this unprecedented Court’s decision sets very high standards for transparency and inclusiveness in consultation with the interested public in adopting any new policies and regulations.
While the MSES has already started to implement a proscribed procedure and on May 31st launched a month-long on-line public debate about the HE curriculum, the Court’s verdict has suspended the promotion of systematic, school-based support for Croatian's youth progress to sexually healthy adulthood. All these developments around the HE program, as well as a recent initiative (undertaken by the same group of faith-based CSOs) for a referendum to introduce a constitutional provision that defines marriage as a bond between a man and a woman, have highlighted the widespread impact that the Catholic Church has on Croatian public life. Moreover, it is apparent that the Church misuses its political power to influence significant areas of Croatian citizens' private lives, while openly promoting intolerance and discrimination. This Constitutional Court’s decision has only underscored the Church’s meddling with secular affairs, such as educational programs in public schools. (10th June 2013)

Further Reading

Hodžić, A., J. Budesa, Štulhofer A. & J. Irvine (2012): The politics of youth sexuality: Civil society and school-based sex education in Croatia. Sexualities 15(3-4): 494-514.

Bijelic N (2008): Sex education in Croatia: Tensions between secular and religious discourses. European Journal of Women’s Studies 15(4): 329–343.

Croatian NGOs promoting gender equality and sexual education

Center for Education, Counseling and Research

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