A new school curriculum promoting the respect of sexual choices has created a controversy in Peru - a reminder of the taboo on homosexuality in the country. Jurriaan van Eerten reports from Iquitos.
Even before she sits down, Milagros Rios starts to weep. She takes some tissues from the box on her desk to dry her eyes. In front of her lies the new school curriculum manual, which the Peruvian government sent out to all schools at the beginning of the new academic year. To her left, up on the wall, hangs an image of Jesus on the cross.
"How can I teach this to the children?" she asks. For a while she sobs silently. The new school curriculum states that men and women should have the same rights and should be treated equally. It is founded in the idea that everyone should be respected in their sexual choices. It was meant to enforce women who are often still pushed into the traditional work of cleaning the house and cooking.
But now a strong counter movement has emerged.
Under the banner of con mis hijos no te metas (don't mess with my children), lies and misconceptions are being spread by protest groups about the new curriculum, for example that young children as young as five will be forced to dress up like the other sex and will have to choose whether they want to be hetero-or homosexual.
For Milagros Rios, the controversy has an added dimension. She has a 27-year-old daughter who lives together with a woman. It's a situation she has never really come to terms with. When she comes back home after work from the primary school in Iquitos where she is the headmaster, she hides away in her house, rather than sit out on the front porch to chat with her neighbors.
"She is my daughter, so I have to accept it, but it is very difficult. I believe that God created men and women as they are. And now with this new curriculum, I really don't know what to do. In my situation, I can't be the one to teach this."
Tolerance, no respect
The dental practice of Rios' daughter Andrea Urello Rios is a short motor-taxi-ride away from the school. When asked about the controversy and her mother's stance, she sighs.
"I don't know what's wrong with these people. People like my mother don't understand that you are born as a homosexual. There is no changing you. Not even by injecting hormones, as they believe."
Often, Urello had evangelists visiting her at home, trying to chase away the demons from her soul. She always draws their attention to the little statue of the virgin Mary with child standing prominently on a drawer in her practice, explaining that her God treats everyone as equals.
"It never helps," she told DW. "The people here in this city tolerate me, but they do not respect me. A neighbor will greet me on the street, but when they are drinking beer at a corner shop they start making jokes about me."
Although Urello has never been physically assaulted in the streets, many others have. A recent study in the capital Lima showed that 90 percent of the LGBT community had been a victim of violence at least once.
The word of God
In Iquitos, a jungle city of half a million inhabitants that can only be reached by boat or plane, the protests have been vociferous. The missionary movements, which for centuries have visited the jungle to convert the indigenous population, have left a strong impression.
Diana Chavez, spokesperson of the San Agustín eparchy in Iquitos, says they believe God created men and women, so that's what they will teach in the school. They were active in the con mis hijos no te metas protests,and wrote a letter to the government stating their refusal to teach the new curriculum.
"We instruct the youth according to the word of God," she told DW in her office. "How a man should behave and how a woman should behave. People who think differently are confused and need help on a psychological, moral and spiritual level."
But according to Pilar Biggio, pedagogical adviser to the Vice-Minister of Education, the ministry never promoted the idea that men and women are biologically equal. In an effort to avoid further controversy, the ministry decided to amend the new curriculum to clarify the changes.
"In the curriculum, it only says man and woman should have equal rights," she told DW via email. "The spreading of false information created a lot of distrust among parents, who still send us many questions. The curriculum doesn't promote homosexuality, it promotes equality and respect. Homosexuality cannot be taught. What can be taught is homophobia."