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    Southeast Asia
     Apr 5, 2008
Church has last word in the Philippines
By William Sparrow

BANGKOK - The Philippines' Department of Education (DepEd) is aggressively trying to push through a sex education plan for high school students, despite the protests and lobbying of the Catholic Church, which seeks to muzzle educators from presenting what it considers to be "immoral" information.

The DepEd must clear a final hurdle from the Presidential Council on Values Formation (PCVF) - the body which is currently reviewing the secondary schools' "adolescent reproductive health manuals", according to Education Secretary Jesli A Lapus.

"The new draft modules which are subject to PCVF review and approval are purely health and science angles on reproductive health ... They are not sex educational materials at all," Lapus


told the Philippine Daily Inquirer this week after the DepEd furnished the newspaper with copies of the revised manual titled "Secondary Teachers' Toolkit on Adolescent Reproductive Health."

Lapus stressed that the revised modules were "products of nationwide multisectoral consultations".

Although the Philippines has been given positive marks in recent decades for its sex education programs, recent years have seen the progress steadily erode. Getting past the PCVF is likely to be a formidable challenge as there is a strong presence of the Catholic clergy on the council, which is chaired by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who is also known for bending to pressure of the church.

In 2005, Arroyo told the UN General Assembly to "respect the deep Catholicism of the Filipino people" and said that natural family planning is more effective than artificial means like condoms. Her statements prompted outrage from activists and non-governmental organizations.

The church in the Philippines - where more than 85% of people are Catholic - has long held what many observers view as a negative influence on sexual and reproductive health. In an era of HIV/AIDS it seems staggering that a government, or even a church for that matter, would advocate what appears to be a "head in the sand approach" that puts citizens and parishioners at risk.

Statistics as of 2005 showed the country's annual population growth at 2% - compared to India's 1.7% and Thailand's 1.3%. The study also found that there are over 470,000 illegal abortions each year, nearly 80,000 of which resulted in complications leading to hospitalization.

"The government's bending to the policies of the church is a key force that is setting back reproductive and sexual health in the country," said Rhodora Roy-Raterta, executive director of the Family Planning Organization of the Philippines, at a 2005 conference.

"Public policy on family planning choice is also seen as a moral issue, which has drawn the Catholic hierarchy," said Roy-Raterta, who has called the church a major hindrance to reproductive health and sex education.

The Catholic church views condom use as promoting adultery and pre-marital sex, and church leaders believe that sex is meant solely for procreation, In this context, using of condoms - even for HIV/AIDS prevention - becomes an immoral, sinful act.

The problem is becoming very real. An AIDS crisis threatens the Philippines as the number of people who are HIV positive has doubled in just over three years, the Health Department warned in 2006, echoing earlier concerns raised by the UN. A Health Department study at that time projected the number of HIV carriers to have risen to 11,168, from about 6,000 in 2002, Health Secretary Francisco Duque was quoted as saying to local media.

The Philippines, now home to around 85 million people, has become one of the fastest-growing populations in Asia with about 2 million new births each year, many of them in public hospitals so overwhelmed that new mothers are forced to share beds. Meanwhile, the Philippines' population is projected to expand to as many as 142 million by 2040, by the government's own estimates, and the rapid arrival of new mouths to feed is straining the country's creaking infrastructure and choking its efforts to cut poverty.

While family size has fallen to 3.5 children per woman - from six in the 1970s - Filipino mothers, on average, still have one more child than they intended to, according to research by the Alan Guttmacher Institute.

Beth Angsioco, chair of the Democratic Socialist Women of the Philippines, said her group will join the campaign to press the DepEd to continue reintegrating lessons on adolescent reproductive health into the secondary school curriculum.

Angsioco said other groups, such as the Philippine Women Legislator's Committee on Population and Development and the Theia Initiative, will start their own signature-gathering drives to ensure that there will be no let-up in the campaign to have sex education taught in high schools.

"Teaching the youth the ABCs of reproductive health and responsible parenthood would help prevent 'accidents' such as teen pregnancies or worse, sexually-transmitted diseases. The youth should be empowered through knowledge," Angsioco said. "The church should help, not hinder, young people from rising above the immorality of ignorance."

Sunny Cortes, leader of Aksyon LGBT (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transexuals), agreed. "There is no reason why DepEd should not push through with the module. Most of us youth are learning sex and sexuality from the wrong sources, like peers and classmates and pornographic materials," he said.

The Inquirer reported this week that the revised modules include teaching notes on pre-marital sex, commercial sex, abortion and homosexuality. High-risk sexual practices are also discussed and classes are urged to debate the long-term health and social consequences of sexual risk-taking. However, the new textbooks stress sexual abstinence among adolescents, and ask teachers to lead discussions on the advantages of delaying sexual activities during adolescence.

In the end, so much emphasis has been given to women's rights and sex in the Islamic world in recent years that sometimes it can be overlooked that religious fanaticism and conservatism in any form can have extensive negative effects on people's reproductive rights. The Catholic Church's centuries-old doctrine, created by a bunch of celibate priests, on sex only for procreation leaves many people ignorant about sexual health. This is the sad reality.

Taking away people's right to protect themselves, and their right to education and to responsibly manage their sex lives is certainly taking away some of their humanity.

William Sparrow has been an occasional contributor to Asia Times Online and now joins Asia Times Online with a weekly column. Sparrow is editor in chief of Asian Sex Gazette and has reported on sex in Asia for over five years. To contact him send question or comments to Letters@atimes.com.

(Copyright 2008 William Sparrow. All rights reserved. Please contact us about
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