research project

Covid-19 Affects Civic Space in Hungary, Poland and El Salvador

Covid-19 Affects Civic Space in Hungary, Poland and El Salvador 700 350 our civic space

Covid-19 Affects Civic Space in Hungary, Poland and El Salvador

Utrecht University research shows how measures to combat Covid-19 have limited people’s freedoms and rights in Hungary, Poland and El Salvador.

Covid-19 affects the lives of many. But the responses of governments to fight the pandemic may have even more profound consequences. This is not just an issue of health or of the economy, but also of rights and freedoms. In many places, measures taken have heavily affected civic space – that is the freedom people have to express and organise themselves collectively. Two new in-depth country cases studies in Utrecht University’s research project Civic Space under Attack, led by dr Chris van der Borgh and prof dr Antoine Buyse, track what happened in Hungary, Poland and El Salvador in the past half year.

In a nutshell, the review of measures taken show that where civic space was already under pressure before the outbreak of the pandemic, the situation was exacerbated by the measures to fight Covid-19. Sometimes as side effects of restrictive lockdowns, states of emergency or polarizing political discourse, but very often also by using the need to fight the disease as a cover to curtail civil society and curtail critical voices all in one go. The case studies track how civil society and citizens were affected by such government measures and shows how people managed to reclaim space for debate in creative ways, from protesting in cars to creating new online spaces.

Poland and Hungary – comparing two illiberal regimes
Research student Adam Dargiewicz looked into the measures taken by two European illiberal governments in Hungary and Poland. His analysis shows that the emergency powers deployed in Hungary carry a higher potential of becoming weaponized against independent societal actors than in Poland since their scope is more far-reaching. the pandemic in both countries might lead to the solidification of the already existing anti-civil society tendencies rather than to the development of a completely new approach. But, the situation in both countries vividly shows that organizations, grassroot movements and journalists presented great resilience and creativity, and maintained their capability to uphold and rearrange civic space. 

El Salvador
Research student Welmoed Barendsen investigated the volatile situation in El Salvador. While the government’s response was rapid, it was also very strict (mandatory lockdowns, containment centres) and unpredictable and the means deployed were at times violent and based on unclear legal grounds. The populist president has tried to discredit virtually everyone (academics, religious leaders, human rights activists, business leaders and journalists) critical of his policies. At the same time, this report also shows that civil society actors continue to defend, contest and conquer civic space, from journalists distributing food to crowdfunding campaigns. In the context of democratic backsliding in El Salvador, which started well before Covid-19, the pandemic seems to have had had an accelerating impact.

Earlier, the project produced a bibliography with the newest reports and literature on the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on civic space. This offers a systematised overview with a summarising introduction on the key issues involved. Many of these also feature in the now released case studies.

Story by Utrecht University

Bulgaria Policy Brief

Bulgaria Policy Brief 2560 1707 our civic space

On February 5, we posted a story about the sexual education of youth in Bulgaria. Through this story, you get insight in how an innovative research project helps young people get a better understanding of sexuality. A gap of knowledge that exits, because of a lack of proper sexual education in Bulgarian schools. You can read the full story here

Click here to view the full Bulgaria Policy Brief that was written in regard to the sexual education of youth in Bulgaria.

Using youth-led peer research to break the silence on adolescent sexuality in Bulgaria

Using youth-led peer research to break the silence on adolescent sexuality in Bulgaria 918 612 our civic space

Using youth-led peer research to break the silence on adolescent sexuality in Bulgaria 

In Bulgarian schools, the topic of sex education is contentious and often even avoided, leading to a lack of proper knowledge and understanding of sexuality among young people. An innovative research project tried to address this gap by training adolescents as peer researchers to gather information on how young Bulgarians perceived their relationships with others in their community. This led to a series of intimate conversations revealing that young Bulgarians felt the need for better sexual education and the creation of ‘safe spaces’ where young people can discuss sex, sexuality, and relationships. They also prompted action among youth peer researchers, who initiated a number of activities to teach themselves and their peers about sex and sexuality.

In the last two years, the Bulgarian government has made limited progress in its attempt to implement the Istanbul Convention and its National Strategy for Children 2019-2030. This strategy was developed to improve the support provided to children and families, especially to vulnerable children and women who suffer the effects of domestic violence. However, some conservatives lobbied against the Convention’s implementation based on their interpretation of the concept of ‘gender’ and their suspicion that Bulgarian NGOs were trying to implement early sexuality education and to promote homosexuality in schools. As a result of such a sensitive situation, new challenges arise. It has become more difficult to lobby about sexuality education programs in front of the relevant governmental structures and school representatives.

In response to these challenges, the ‘Adolescents’ Perceptions on Healthy Relationships’ (APHR) project was initiated to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation of adolescents by improving the safety and security of the spaces in which they move and live. Funded by the Oak Foundation, and implemented by International Child Development Initiatives, the Institute of Social Studies and Animus Association. The project focused on understanding how adolescents in Bulgaria view healthy relationships based on the idea that healthy relationships can prevent sexual abuse and exploitation. In this project, adolescents were trained as peer researchers and advocates. 

The 30 Bulgarian Youth Peer Researchers (YPRs) who participated in the project between January 2017 and March 2019 researched various aspects of relationships in different settings, such as in the family, peers/friends, and schools. Through a survey, qualitative interviews, and focus group discussions on topics such as violence, sexuality, and online behaviour, they consulted with 850 adolescents, unpacking concepts that adolescents reported as important ingredients for healthy relations—concepts such as trust, respect, equality, and dominance. The research revealed a great deal about the world in which young people in Bulgaria navigate and how this affects their relationships. The research showed, for example, that homosexuality, a hot topic in Bulgaria over the past few years, remains a challenge for youths: only 47% felt comfortable sharing their sexual status with their parents. In addition, 58% of YPRs responded that they think that violence always, often, or sometimes occurs in romantic relationships between teenagers, mostly psychological violence.

A gap in education, a lack of space

“Actually, I’ve read a lot of articles about sex. I took part in a course (not related to school) dedicated to sexual education. I do not learn anything in my school. I learned a lot from the girls from this group.” (Alexander, 17)

In Bulgaria, many schools offer no sexual education at all. Teachers are unwilling to talk about sex and when they do, the curriculum tends to focus on ‘biological’ and negative aspects and risks of sexuality, such as early pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. YPRs pointed out that although these findings did not surprise them, they found them very problematic. They and their peers now depend on each other and on the Internet to get information on sex and sexuality. The YPRs also commented that the school does not provide any space for learning or exchange when it comes to these topics. Yet they assert that understanding the role of sex is essential to a healthy relationship, as it is to be open and informative about it. Adolescents therefore need safe spaces and opportunities to discuss it. This, they argue, will greatly contribute to establishing and maintaining healthy (intimate) relationships throughout their lifetimes. 

Youths driving action to transform sex education
Following these discussions, youth peer researchers have felt increasingly empowered to take action. First of all, the YPRs have taught themselves what there is to know about sexual education. Through literacy and online research, listening to experts and talking to their peers, they have come to understand what information young people need to have when it comes to sex and sexuality. They have not only informed themselves, but have also become peer educators, helping their classmates to become better informed and feel comfortable when talking about this subject. Moreover, the YPRs now confidently indicate what is needed to improve sexual education and information for young people. And they haven’t stopped here. To really make changes, they have devised a Policy Brief with recommendations for schools to improve sexual education. This policy brief formed the basis of an advocacy campaign, which includes a website, peer-to-peer sexual education classes, a social media campaign, and the creation of events and spaces where young people can discuss matters of sexuality freely and safely. 

In July 2020, despite and during the COVID-19 pandemic, the YPRs organized an out-door event, in which 42 young people participated in a World Café, discussing sexuality, relationships and the threat they face because of COVID-19. 

The project results reveal the potential of participatory peer research itself for effecting positive change and promoting healthy relationships from an adolescent-centered perspective. In fact, it has in this case led to young people claiming civic space on several levels. They now have a space in the debate on sexual education, have established actual spaces where this can safely be discussed, and have an online platform accessible to all youth in Bulgaria.

Written by ICDI