Like most college students in the Philippines, students in Palawan have not received any formal sex education from their schools or their families. The great majority of students have not grown up with cable television or access to the Internet. As such, a lot of these students know very little about sex. Some may argue this is a good thing, but while they are at university, many of these students will have their first sexual encounter. Since they don’t know how to prevent pregnancy or protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections, many girls have unplanned pregnancies and are forced to drop out of school. Many students also become infected with STIs. These are some of the reasons why Roots of Health has started a College Outreach Program. We want to reach these young people who are Palawan’s future leaders and help educate and empower them, keep them in school, keep them infection-free and help them plan their futures.
[slickr-flickr tag=”sex ed” photos_per_row=”6″ align=”left” items=”12″ thumbnail_scale=”110″ direction=”descending” align=”center”]
Photos of Sexual Health and STIs Seminar at Palawan State University
This week I tagged along with Belle Lahoz Cortezano, our College Outreach Program Coordinator, and Josh Gulane, our Head Nurse. Belle and Josh had been invited to conduct a session on sexually transmitted infections for some third year College of Education students at Palawan State University.
Belle began the seminar by starting a discussion on sex, in particular premarital sex. She had a diagram depicting some of the reasons why people have premarital sex. Some of the reasons included were: curiosity, rebellion, and to “save” a relationship. Belle discussed the many reasons and as she concluded, I realized that a major reason why many people have sex at a young age – being drunk – was not on the list. I asked the class if they could guess another reason, expecting someone to guess being under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. Instead, I was stunned when a student raised her hand and answered, “because of financial difficulties.” Wow, I hadn’t expected that answer, though I should have since researcher Margeaux Berroth documented in her study of students at PSU that many girls engage in sex work in order to help pay their tuition fees and bills. Still, the way the student so calmly cited that as a reason for having sex floored me.
It was clear from the tone of the discussion that what little information students had received about sex was all negative. Young people here are simply told not to have sex and if they do, they are bad people. It was also clear from the discussion that the students are desperate for information, and need to have a safe, non-judgmental forum in which to ask their questions and get some honest answers. We had given the students the opportunity to ask us questions anonymously. One read:
“Is [sex] really that bad?”
Good question! Is it really so bad? My immediate reaction was to think, “Well of course it isn’t so bad!” But could I say that without shocking the students and getting thrown out of the University, never to be invited back again? Filipino culture is pretty conservative, at least in rhetoric. This is partly why there has been so much uproar from conservative groups around the Reproductive Health Bill that the Philippine Congress is currently debating. Besides providing women in the country with life-saving emergency obstetric care, access to modern family planning methods, skilled midwives to attend births as well as pre and postnatal care, earlier versions of the bill called for providing Filipino school children with sex education. As a concession to conservative critics, lobbying against this, the version of the RH Bill being debated in Congress has included an opt out clause for parents who don’t want their child to have Sex Ed.
Why is there so much opposition to Sex Ed? Because conservatives believe (or would like to believe) that Filipino young people are all chaste and virtuous and would never engage in premarital sexual relations. The same people believe that if given scientific and factual information on biology, sex, pregnancy, pregnancy prevention and how to protect against sexually transmitted infections, that suddenly all the formerly chaste and virtuous youth of the Philippines will abandon whatever morals and values they have, and start having sex with wild abandon. Critics of sex education fail to acknowledge that any Sex Ed given to students would be age appropriate. They also fail to give parents and families any credit in providing guidance to children on good decision making, whether based on religious teachings, the parents’ values or plain common sense. They underestimate young people and their ability to make responsible, well-informed decisions.
Critics of the RH Bill also ignore the fact that despite appearances and rhetoric, a great number of Filipino youth are indeed engaging in premarital sex. The Philippines currently has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the world. Why? Because kids don’t have Sex Ed, so when they do engage in sex, they aren’t doing it safely because they don’t know anything about condoms or other contraceptives. Many don’t even know about the health risks they are taking when they have unprotected sex. Aside from the possibility of pregnancy, the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection is high. The Philippines has high rates of STIs, and HIV infection is on the rise. All these infections will likely explode in the near future, as people remain uneducated about these illnesses and continue to engage in unprotected sex.
So is sex really that bad?
No. It isn’t. It can be wonderful and amazing.
But it is best when the people having it are mature, and understand what they are doing and feel ready for all the emotional, mental and physical aspects of a sexual relationship. And sex is best when it is done safely – when people use protection in order to prevent unplanned pregnancies and the spread of infections. So how are Filipinos going to be able to achieve the ideal circumstances for sex when they continue to be denied basic information and education about their bodies and their health? Congress should keep battling to include the sex education provision in the RH Bill, and pass the RH Bill now.