Religion gets in the way of safe sex

Manila, Philippines — With the unprecedented rise in the number of HIV infections this year, health officials are hoping that the Pope’s recent statement about condom use will help promote it as an effective way of preventing the spread of the virus.

In this year alone, the Department of Health HIV/AIDS Registry recorded 1,417 new infections for the period January to November. It is the highest number of HIV infections recorded in a single year since the epidemic was first discovered in the Philippines in 1984.

A 2008 assessment of the AIDS Medium Term Plan (AMTP) of the Philippine National AIDS Council (PNAC) stated that “MSMs present the biggest threat of an accelerated growth in the spread of HIV in the country.”

Condom use a struggle

The Philippines has the lowest condom use in Asia and according to the National Demographic Health Study of 2008, condom use stands at a dismal 2.8%. Other methods like withdrawal which involves unprotected sex is much higher at 9.8%.

Health experts have been struggling to promote condom usage among the youth as a means of protection against STI and HIV and have met a strong adversary in the Catholic Church and other pro-life groups.

The Catholic Church adamantly opposes any form of modern contraception saying that they are abortifacients that promote promiscuity.  With over 90% of the population being Catholic, the Church’s teachings have a strong bearing over the public’s perception and the social stigma that surrounds condoms.

Raynald [not his real name], 20, said that he is embarrassed to purchase condoms because of the looks that he gets from cashiers. “May be it’s because I appear too young to them, but the way they look at me — you just know they are judging.”

This is part of the reason why health experts are hoping the Pope’s statement on condom use will help sway public perception.

“It is definitely a welcome statement” said Ferchito Avelino, Director of the Philippine National AIDS Council (PNAC).  “I am positive that it will have an impact, especially in STI prevention, though maybe not to prevent pregnancy.”, Avelino said.

Grasping at straws

But for other members of the Catholic hierarchy, nothing has changed.

Melvin Chan, executive secretary of the Family and Life Commission of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), the official organization of the Catholic hierarchy clarified, “A group of Filipino priests just got back from the Vatican and clarified [the statement] with the Holy Father himself. The Pope clarified that in light of their profession, male prostitutes can condom use as a sign of moral responsibility and possibly the start of his conversion.”

“So, you see, nothing has changed. We were in fact commended for upholding the fight to protect the sanctity of life from its start.”, concluded Castro.

Elizabeth Angsioco, chairperson of the Democratic Socialist Women of the Philippines (DSWP) refuted this, “There is a CBCP Manual that specifically encourages the use of condoms between sero-discordant couples to prevent HIV transmission to the uninfected partner.”

Castro claimed that this clause was incorrect and was struck out in the latter versions of the manual.

Not a moral battle

Jonas Bagas, chairperson of The Library Foundation (TLF Share), an NGO that promotes sexual health in the context of human rights said, “Rather than focus on what the Pope says, we need concrete interventions as the HIV problem is an urgent one.”

The Philippines has long been seen as a low prevalence country, but the 2010 Global AIDS report showed that globally, infection rates have gone down by 19%, whereas in the Philippines, it on an unprecedented upswing.

“The global trend is that countries are driving down the rate of infection or at least controlling it. In the Philippines, it is the opposite.”, said Bagas.

“We need to take the discussion to a public health framework; not where it is dictated upon by some sort of dogma. “, Bagas said.

Bagas and other RH groups are pushing for the passage of a Reproductive Health Bill as a way to address the HIV and AIDS problem.

If passed, the RH Bill will legislate the procurement of condoms and other contraceptives and make them a part of the list of essential medicines in hospitals. Age appropriate sex education, which is absent is most schools curricula, would also be mandated starting grade 5.

The RH Bill is currently undergoing plenary debates and RH advocates are hopeful that it will be passed by the first quarter of next year.

The Philippines is the only country in the South East Asia region where there is no national law on reproductive health.

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Image: Some rights reserved by Autistic Psycho

Ana Santos

Ana is a journalist by education and now by profession, after taking a few detours in the corporate world of banking. She is also a sexual health rights activist as a matter of choice and passion.

As an independent journalist and foreign correspondent covering sexual health rights and women in armed conflict, Ana has received media grants from Newsbreak, Probe Media Foundation and the Philippine Press Institute to cover population and development issues. Recently, Ana also took on the post of Associate Editor for Illustrado, a Dubai-based lifestyle magazine for overseas Filipinos.

In 2009, Ana founded Sex and Sensibilities.com (SAS), a website that promotes positive sexuality in the context of informed choice among young women.

"Happy Even After", a spin-off of SAS, is a candid and sometimes humorous look at the perils and pressures of solo parenting in one of the two remaining countries in the world where divorce is not legal.