A controversy is raging in the Philippines over a sex education programme aimed at cutting the population growth rate, which is blamed for massive poverty in the Southeast Asian country of about 92 million.
Openly talking about sex remains taboo in many quarters of Philippine society but all that is changing as the government introduces a controversial sex education programme to public school pupils.
The influential Roman Catholic Church is demanding the plan be scrapped, but the cash-strapped government is struggling to contain an annual population growth rate of more than 2 percent.
Education Secretary Mona Valisno said she was open to meeting church leaders about the sex education campaign, which was launched this week at the start of the school year. The plan is to introduce the Adolescent Reproductive Health programme to children from the fifth grade and older in 80 public elementary and 79 high schools, but it will soon be expanded nationwide.
“Our role here is to educate the young people on issues that directly affect them and empower them to make informed choices and decisions,” Valisno told reporters, explaining that the sex education modules would be integrated in various subjects, including science and health.
Topics will range from personal hygiene to reproductive health. Issues relating to pre-marital sex, teenage pregnancy, as well as HIV and AIDS, will also be discussed, she said.
“Among those who prepared the modules are psychologists because we want to ensure that specific topics for discussions will be made in the appropriate year levels,” she said.
However, she said government was “still open for consultations” with the church, and it is not known if the programme will be fully implemented, revised or scrapped.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), which in the past has succeeded in blocking a proposed law that would have provided public funds for information on and access to artificial birth control, quickly voiced its opposition to the programme, and demanded that it be scrapped on moral grounds. It also argued that sex education was better taught in the privacy of the home, not in the public sphere.
“These issues are not for children,” said Monsignor Pedro Quitorio, CBCP’s media director. “This is better left to the parents. This will just lead to promiscuity. Sex should be taught as a gift from God and not just the physical aspect of it.”
Combating poverty and HIV
The UN, in a statement on 18 June, meanwhile threw its weight behind the programme, pointing out that the Philippines was a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child that obliges it to ensure adolescent girls and boys are given accurate and appropriate information on how to protect their health and practise sexually safe behaviours.
“Since 47 percent of the population in the Philippines are below 19, a critical element to helping young people out of poverty is providing them with the information to enable them to grow up healthy and enable them to make the right choices for themselves and their families,” the UN said.
Suneeta Mukherjee, the Philippine country director for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), sought to allay widespread fears among parents that the school lessons would encourage children to be sexually active.
“These are life skills modules. This is not necessarily about contraception. Sex education is a misunderstood term,” Mukherjee told IRIN.
“The young ones are excitable, willing to take risks. They must be properly informed of what is right for them, what risks they are taking. This will definitely not lead to promiscuity,” she said, adding that the UNFPA remains committed to seeing the programme through with the Manila government.
According to the UN, the country remains off-track in achieving most of the Millennium Development Goals, with 33 percent of Filipinos still living on less than US$1 a day. In addition, about 5.2 million school-age children are not enrolled in education, while 11 mothers die each day due to pregnancy-related causes.
But even worse is that the incidence of HIV among youth has increased five-fold just over the past two years, the UN said.
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