Love Your Condom

There are two certainties during Valentine’s Day: a boom in retail sales and a surge in sexual intercourse.

While the day is formally to remember the life of the Christian martyr St. Valentine of Terni, it has since become a consumerist holiday packaged as a day of romance to drive sales of products such as greeting cards, pastries and flower bouquets among others. This emphasis on romance and connecting with your partner explains heightened sexual activity during this day.

In a conservative nation like the Philippines, there is an absence of a “safe sex” culture. There is widespread ignorance on birth control use which means the increased sexual activity also poses societal risks. These include the proliferation of sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs) and an increase in teenage pregnancy. A nationwide sex education curriculum could tackle the latter, the accessibility of condoms mitigates the former.

The need for better access to condoms cannot be taken for granted. In 2016, Human Rights Watch noted that the Philippines “is facing one of the fastest-growing epidemics of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in the Asia-Pacific region,” recording an HIV-prevalence rate of 15% the year before – shadowing the 0.2% rate average for the Asia-Pacific region and even the 4.7% prevalence rate in Sub-Saharan Africa during that same year. While those numbers only represent males who engage in sex with other males, it is still alarming to see such a drastic increase when for decades the Philippines boasted a much lower HIV-prevalence rate compared to its’ ASEAN neighbors.

The DOH even issued a plea in 2015 to double their budget for HIV-prevention, since some major cities in the country have prevalence rates that surpass the 5% threshold the United Nations has set as a benchmark to declare a “concentrated HIV epidemic”. Cagayan de Oro, Puerto Princesa, Davao, Quezon City, Parañaque and Makati all had prevalence rates above 5%, while Cebu’s rate was at 14%.

In November last year, the National Youth Commission (NYC) said that 62% of new HIV cases in 2016 were among individuals between the ages of 15-24 years old – this makes millennials the new face of the HIV epidemic in the country, rather than gay males or sex workers. In fact, the DOH estimated that as of May 2016 there were 25 new HIV cases every day.

With regards to teenage pregnancy, the statistics are equally concerning. The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) reported last year that 10% of Filipina women between the ages of 15-24 years old have already begun childbearing, with 2% pregnant with their first child and 8% already being mothers. The worst part about this statistic is that it bucks the trend for the rest of the world, according to a UN research the rest of the world saw a decline in teenage pregnancy except the Philippines.

The reality is alarming, yet the stubbornness among the decision-makers in the country to adopt a comprehensive, government-funded sex education curriculum in high schools and universities remain. Even a drive to improve accessibility to condoms would be much appreciated, just like the free condom distribution campaign conducted by the DOH every year during Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, the health department announced that no such campaign would occur this year citing opposition from conservative lobby groups such as the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).

Their apprehension remained even though condoms are universally recognized as the most potent tool to prevent the spread of STDs, it is the most cost effective and convenient birth control method. In developed countries, condoms are easily accessible through health clinics and even public school restrooms – and the prevalence of STDs and teenage pregnancies in those places are much lower than the Philippines.

Yet the reality remains, Filipino couples have to bear spending Valentine’s with added costs. The government declines to lend a hand, but couples can still acquire condoms themselves. This may be an added cost but in a society where the risks are great, it pays to invest in safe sex this Valentine’s Day.

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