PHILIPPINE health authorities this week called off a nationwide plan to distribute condoms in schools for a HIV-prevention campaign, following protests from conservatives and the Education Department’s (DepEd) refusal to support the drive.
The decision will likely be seen by rights groups as a major setback in the Duterte administration’s controversial push for improvements to the country’s reproductive health and family planning policy.
According to an Inquirer report, however, this does not mean an abrupt end to the HIV campaign in schools. The report says DepEd will continue with efforts to spread awareness and disseminate information on the virus at education institutions nationwide.
“The recommendation to involve schools to provide services to improve condom access is not anymore a primary consideration after DOH (Health Department) and DepEd agreed to take a different path but which shall still complement each other’s prerogatives,” Health Secretary Paulun Ubial explained Wednesday.
Ubial added that DepEd will focus on HIV education where appropriate, while the DOH will work with other agencies to ensure such information is linked to the provision of HIV prevention services, which include condom access.
The DOH official’s remarks follows DepEd Secretary Leonor Magtolis Briones’ decision Monday that the department would not participate in the “condom-in-schools” drive.
In a statement on DepEd’s website, Briones cited the department’s responsibilities as outlined in an Executive Order and a Supreme Court decision, and said its primary role is to review and strengthen the basic education curriculum.
“We will follow the UNESCO guidelines on reproductive health, including the requirements of the Constitution and the law. . . obviously what we’re allowed to do is to improve the curriculum,” she said.
She further noted, “Nothing within the school premises because right now you have the health centers who are already tasked with that function. . . Yung consequence ng (the consequences of) pre-marital sex, the dangers involved but not the distribution.”
Ubial, in her response, also said the DOH respects and “totally supports” the decision.
“The DOH totally supports DepEd’s stance to develop and roll out age-appropriate reproductive health education in public schools, at the same time raising HIV awareness among at risk and vulnerable population, now increasingly affecting the youth,” Ubial said, as quoted by Inquirer.
“This is an essential component of the DOH’s HIV comprehensive prevention and control program focusing on abstinence, condom use, early HIV testing, peer counseling, antiretroviral treatment and ending stigmatisation and discrimination. Improving condom access is critical to reverse current HIV trends,” she said.
Condom distribution will proceed at health centers now, following DepEd’s decision.
Earlier this month, several top Philippine officials expressed objection to the DOH’s condom drive, claiming the initiative would only promote promiscuity among youths, which conservatives regard as a social ill.
Their objections, however, appear to contradict President Rodrigo Duterte’s national policy on contraception. The president had on Jan 10 signed an executive order (EO) to ensure free contraceptive access to six million Filipino women, triggering outcry from conservative elements in the majority Catholic Christian country.
The measure is said to be necessary to help the government reduce poverty incidence. It is believed that one in five Filipinos currently live in poverty.
Last year, at the urging of elements of the church, conservative lawmakers reportedly cut PHP1 billion (US$20 million) from the PHP2.2 billion (US$44 million) budget meant for family health and responsible parenting. This reportedly deprived low-income Filipinos to government-supplied contraceptive products.
In December 2016, a Human Rights Watch report decried the cuts as one of several government policies that it said has fueled the country’s worsening HIV epidemic among men who have sex with men.
The report also said that due to the budget cut, government clinics are likely to exhaust their condom supplies by early 2017.