IN DEPTH 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
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
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,
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
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
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.