Family Watch International opposes sex education aimed at protecting children against predators | RealTime Images

‘Hate group’ Family Watch International is teaching high-level politicians across Africa how to campaign against sex education and LGBT rights.

Family Watch International (FWI), a US Christian conservative organisation described by civil rights activists as a “hate group” for its anti-LGBT stance, has been coaching high-ranking African politicians and religious and civic leaders to oppose comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) across the continent.

For at least a decade, African ambassadors to the United Nations have been invited to FWI’s annual training programme in the US. The focus of the training is on opposing both LGBT rights and CSE – which the UN defines as “the education of children and young people about sexual health, well-being and dignity”. FWI’s training for African leaders also includes practical sessions on how to negotiate at the UN.

FWI president Sharon Slater and her husband, Greg Slater, who is the group’s senior legal adviser, also hold receptions for the twenty or so politicians at their suburban home in Gilbert, Arizona.

By day, Greg Slater is vice-president and senior director of global regulatory affairs at the microchip giant Intel, which has publicly backed equal rights for LGBT people. But in his role at FWI, he advises the organisation on legal strategies to push their anti-LGBT agenda, and also presents some of the diplomats’ training sessions.

Zambia’s ambassador to the African Union (AU), Emmanuel Mwamba, confirmed to openDemocracy that he has attended two diplomat training sessions hosted by FWI in the US and, earlier this year, he gave one of the programme’s keynote speeches.

Since attending his first FWI training, Mwamba has been vocal against CSE in Zambia. In a newspaper article published last month, he writes that “at the heart of CSE is a determined goal to achieve, sexualise children, make them less ‘homophobic’, and let them know that sex is a right with whoever they wish to have it with.”

UNAIDS executive director Winnie Byanyima, from Uganda, told openDemocracy that “CSE is an integral part of the right to education and to health. It is not optional. It is not negotiable.”

“Quality CSE puts the power of knowledge for prevention directly in the hands of adolescent girls, boys and young people – to prevent HIV, early pregnancy, the trauma of maternal deaths, and sexual and gender-based violence – and to know where to get timely support.”

Meanwhile, South Africa’s education department has accused an anti-CSE alliance that includes the South African group Family Policy Institute, a close ally of FWI, of “misrepresentation of facts” after they used fake “leaked lesson plans” that included sexually graphic material to agitate parents against CSE.

Departmental spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said that “more than a third of girls and boys experience sexual violence before the age of seventeen”, which was why the department had introduced age-appropriate education that “builds resilience, confidence and assertion among young people, who often do not know when they are being violated by sexual predators”.

Banning sex education

FWI, which was founded by Sharon Slater, a Mormon mother of seven, is campaigning to ban CSE in at least ten African countries, including through its “Stop CSE” website, which hosts petitions against sex education.

FWI and its supporters push abstinence-only sex education and claim that CSE is “abortion, promiscuity, and LGBT rights education”.

Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, Namibia’s minister for international relations, who is also the country’s deputy prime minister, is the latest African politician to echo the views of the anti-CSE movement. In June, she urged her country not to renew the ESA Commitment on CSE and youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services.

The 2013 commitment, which is supported by UNAIDS, UNESCO and UNFPA, aims to help young people avoid unwanted pregnancies, HIV infection and sexual violence and involves all 21 countries in the East and Southern Africa region. The commitment ends in December; it is currently being evaluated by independent researchers and may be extended.

openDemocracy has seen Nandi-Ndaitwah’s correspondence in which she says that “while there may be positive aspects in the CSE programme”, Namibia should “steer away from programmes that border on elements that may be considered illegal”. (According to laws inherited from colonial days, sexual relations between men are illegal in the country.)

The minister’s letter echoes what FWI’s Slater said in recent webinars for Kenyan and Zambian leaders. She urged them to withdraw from the ESA Commitment, remove CSE from their schools and “get UN agencies, International Planned Parenthood Federation and foreign governments out of [your] sex ed.”

Screenshots from FWI’s recent webinars aimed at Kenyan and Zambian conservatives.

openDemocracy made several requests for a comment from Nandi-Ndaitwah but, aside from confirming that she had written the letter, she did not respond to questions about whether she had been influenced by FWI or was against CSE because it mentions homosexuality.

Influence at the UN – and African Union

This week, openDemocracy revealed that 28 US Christian right organisations, many closely linked to the Trump administration, have spent more than $280 million globally to influence laws, policies and public opinion against sexual and reproductive rights. Outside the United States, these groups spent more money in Africa (at least $54 million) than anywhere else in the world except Europe.

Despite its involvement in the policies of several African countries, FWI has not invested greatly in Africa. In 2018, less than $3,000 of its $730,000 budget was spent in Africa, according to financial filings with US authorities.

However, the group has access to African diplomats at the UN in New York, where it has observer status at the Economic and Social Council. Slater also chairs the conservative UN Family Rights Caucus. Between 2014 and 2018, FWI spent more than $465,000 on the “Global Family Policy Forum”, which is what it calls its annual training programme in the US for African ambassadors.

FWI’s Africa director Seyoum Antonios, who is based in Addis Ababa (where the African Union is also headquartered), is a well-known anti-LGBT activist. He is notorious for declaring that homosexuality is an “abomination” and “Africa will be the graveyard for homosexuals”. Mwamba, the Zambian ambassador, told openDemocracy that FWI is also pursuing observer status at the AU.

Jedidah Maina, executive director of the Kenyan NGO Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health, says that between 2010 and 2015, the anti-LGBT movement in Africa was “largely white evangelicals from the US such as Family Watch International and the World Congress of Families (WCF)”. (The WCF is a US- and Russia-led international religious conservative network.)

But, she says, “Now it is morphing with new African actors. The conversation is the same but the actors have changed. These organisations are all fronted by Africans but the messaging is the same, especially in regard to CSE, which they claim sexualises children, encourages them to have sex and turns them gay.”

Resistance from grassroots movements

African officials’ opposition to CSE is pitting them against young grassroots activists on the continent, including student movements.

Luciano Kambala, secretary general of the African Youth & Adolescents Network and an executive member of the Namibia National Students’ Organisation, says the attack on CSE is “worrisome” at a time “when there are high rates of GBV [gender-based violence] and rape in the country” – the very things CSE seeks to address.

“There has been no consultation about the review of CSE,” added Kambala. “Some opponents say parents must take up the responsibility for talking to their children about sex, but research shows that young people don’t want this. It is taboo to speak to your parents about sex. We will do whatever we can to ensure that CSE remains on the curriculum. We have seen the positive results and we will do whatever we can to protect it.”

UNESCO’s health and education chief Christopher Castle said: “With comprehensive sexuality education, children and young people learn to treat each other with respect and dignity from an early age, know who to trust and consult when confused about their bodies, relationships and values, learn what is right and safe for them and how to avoid coercion, and to uphold human dignity, equality, love and kindness.”

In response to how Intel reconciles its inclusive policy towards LGBTQ people with Greg Slater’s activities for FWI, Intel spokesperson Patricia Oliverio-Lauderdale said that the company remains “committed to a diverse workforce and inclusive culture, which are key to Intel’s evolution and driving forces of its growth”.

“Our employees may not always agree with the company’s stance, and they are free to undertake outside political activities as long as they treat fellow employees with respect and do not violate Intel’s code of conduct,” added Oliverio-Lauderdale. However, Slater’s biography no longer appears on the Intel website, which it did before openDemocracy’s query.

FWI did not respond to openDemocracy requests for comment. However, it has contested its description as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.