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How archaic mindsets and failed policies are nurturing the HIV epidemic

Adding to the Philippines’ continuing plight to curb the worsening HIV epidemic, as well as the still prevalent archaic mindset when it comes to all things sex, Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial recently flip-flopped on the department’s support for the distribution of condoms among senior high school students, saying “It was only an option raised for consideration.”

Instead, Ubial, who announced in December that her department would be distributing condoms in 2017, plans to urge the government to take measures designed to block pornographic websites from the country’s internet system. Similar to a number of high level officials’ logic that the distribution of condoms promotes promiscuity among the youth, Ubial based her plan of action on the assumption that pornography encourages increased sexual activity among the youth.

Last month, the Philippine government blocked several major porn sites, citing the country’s anti-child pornography law.

According to a Philippine Star report, Ubial said she is considering the distribution of print materials showing actual photos of people with sexually transmitted diseases
as a deterrent to sexual promiscuity.

HIV epidemic

In early February, the Department of Education similarly rejected the proposed distribution of condoms and other contraceptive products, with Education Secretary Leonor Briones saying, “The parents can relax… there will be no condom distribution
in schools.”

But parents might find a hard time trying to “relax,” as just this past December, the Philippines recorded an average of 24 new HIV cases (750 in total). Of those 750 reported cases, 72 have developed into full-blown AIDS, according to the Department of Health.

As pointed out by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Philippines is one of the fastest growing epidemics of HIV in the Asia-Pacific region, citing official statistics showing that HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men have increased tenfold in the last five years.

“President Rodrigo Duterte has inherited a legacy of failed or counterproductive policies [from] previous administrations that are contributing to the alarming increase
in HIV infections among men who have sex with men,” HRW Philippines researcher Carlos H. Conde said.

“Reducing HIV transmission isn’t rocket science. But it does require the Duterte government to implement an HIV prevention program and remove obstacles to condom and HIV testing access so that young Filipinos – particularly men who have sex with men – can protect themselves from an otherwise preventable illness.”

Sex mis-education

Those from developed countries may find it unfathomable why condom distribution remains a strong point of contention in 2017. But in a country that has a senator who cites the Bible to support his stand against gay marriage one moment, then points the same Bible to support the re-imposition of the death penalty the next, it’s not too difficult to imagine why supposedly rudimentary issues like sex education and contraceptives remain contentious subjects.

“We respectfully appeal that our teachers be more diligent in teaching sex education and teach the students how to protect themselves,” National Youth Commission chair Aiza Seguerra said recently. “We’ve had reports that even if it’s part of the curriculum,
these are still not taught and are being avoided because there are teachers who think it is taboo. We cannot protect our young people if we don not give them the right information.”

Seguerra has previously slammed the country’s conservative culture as the root cause of the country’s unwillingness to discuss sex, which has led to the continued unavailability of basic reproductive health services.

Empirical evidence

Meanwhile, state think tank Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) recently produced a paper disproving claims that age-appropriate sex education would lead to increased rates of sexual activity.

The paper, written by Michael Abrigo and Vicente Paqueo, cited studies that not only show the lack of evidence for the above claims, but also evidence for the opposite. As noted by a PIDS release, evidence from studies and surveys by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Medical University of South Carolina, the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, the University of California, and the Philippine Statistics Authority all support the efficacy of sex education in delaying sexual initiation among young people.

The paper’s authors noted that it is better to develop a sex education program based on a deep consultative process with key stakeholders than preventing government from providing students with opportunities to learn from professionally developed sex education programs solely because of pre-conceived ideas of their consequences.

“Moral beliefs and good intentions alone are not enough to determine whether a policy position is beneficial or detrimental to the well-being of the country’s citizens… Empirical evidence is necessary to protect them against the unintended consequences
of well-meaning but misinformed policy stance,” the authors concluded.

 

By TIMOTHY JAY IBAY

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