Sep 112012

“Teach abstinence”, said the rather quiet man in the back of the crowded classroom. “Teach abstinence and don’t even let students know about contraception – knowing will just encourage promiscuity!”

I blinked, and almost said, “You’re kidding!” but didn’t, because he wasn’t. Roots of Health teachers, Belle, Emily, and I were conducting a workshop for teachers in a university in Puerto Princesa. It was the first session at the college and our purpose was to acquaint the teachers with the kind of materials that we teach when we handle reproductive health sessions in college classrooms. We had begun the workshop by introducing the Human Rights Framework, and had started off with an exercise in which the faculty participants listed as a group what they saw as their own, and their students’ Human Rights. The Right to Education, and the Right to Freedom of Speech were both high on their lists.

So what was this all about? It turns out this teacher was part of a group whose system for teaching about sex was focused on abstinence only education. Fair enough, but I have been a teacher for more than forty years, and I have never ever questioned the wisdom of sharing information, and the rights of students, children, anyone, to know things. I’ve never before heard anyone speak up for ignorance!

Can you teach abstinence? I don’t think so. You can preach abstinence, but in my experience few college or high school students will listen to you. Studies (as well as our own data) show that students who know more about reproductive processes, and responsible parenthood and contraception, are less likely to be sexually active, or they become sexually active at a later time. Recent studies have also found that the Philippines has the highest teen pregnancy rate in southeast Asia, clearly demonstrating that not teaching kids anything is not effective in helping them delay and practice safer sex, or in helping them avoid unplanned pregnancies.

Roots of Health / Ugat ng Kalusugan has really good curricula that we teach in Filipino, for both high school and college students. Our classes are interactive and fun, and the students really come alive – sometimes even groups of students that the regular teachers have described as “dead ball.”

We teach college students to think critically and carefully about their relationships, and to consider all the extra responsibilities that come with sexual relationships. We ask them to write down whether or not they are ready for sex, and why or why not. Most of them say they are not ready for sex. One day however, they will be ready, and where will they get answers to their questions then?

We teach them about their reproductive systems, and how pregnancy happens, and how it can be prevented. Yes, we do show them condoms – as well as pills and DMPA. And then we teach them about sexually transmitted infections. This is the topic on which there are the most questions!! And those that they don’t want to ask in class they text to our hotline. The fact that students have so many questions shows that young people want to learn, but don’t have access to trusted sources of information.

Our data show that our curricula are successful, and we are very willing to share these with the Department of Education or any interested schools. But one thing I learned from my 30 years of teaching in the Ateneo – and from the magnificent showing of Ateneo professors who signed on to support the RH Bill – is that education and especially reproductive education will always be a site of struggle. There will always be teachers with different ideas, teachers who want to do it some other way. Ateneo’s Father Bernas, whom I have admired for many years for his pronouncements on the separation of church and state, has already said Catholic Schools will want their own reproductive health curriculum. Fine. No one wants a state-imposed curriculum. But even within Catholic Schools, there will be disagreement, and there will be struggle, and conflicting ideas. Some will be labeled subversive, and some just plain cantankerous. But that’s okay – that’s what education is supposed to be. It is supposed to be the arena for critical thinking, debate, new ideas, even ‘subversive’ ideas. That is what keeps society alive.

And the right to education, like the right to free speech, is a basic right, a Human Right. It is a right that should not be denied.