Philippine officials, led by Senator Vicente Sotto III, have vowed to block a plan by the Department of Health to start distributing condoms to students as part of its efforts to stem the spread of HIV. The health department plan recognizes that the majority of HIV infections in the Philippines now occur among younger people, particularly men who have sex with men. “High school students are under-aged and it’s a crime to [encourage them to] indulge in sex,” said Sotto.

Students receive free condoms at an event organised by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) on World Population Day, at a mall in Mandaluyong, Metro Manila, July 11, 2014.

© 2014 Reuters

The senator’s willingness to derail the implementation of a much-needed public health measure comes as no surprise. Sotto attempted to block the passage of the country’s landmark reproductive health law on religious grounds and scuttled a harm reduction program in Cebu City aimed at reducing the increase of new HIV infections among people who inject drugs. Government officials who backed Sotto’s anti-public health stance included Mayor Herbert Bautista of Quezon City, which has the highest number of HIV infections in the country, and Vice President Leni Robredo, who argued that condom distribution in schools promotes promiscuity.

Government policy failures – including regulations that obstruct access to condoms – are one of the reasons why the Philippines faces one of the fastest-growing epidemics of HIV in the Asia-Pacific region. Human Rights Watch research shows that many sexually active young Filipinos have little or no knowledge about the role condoms play in preventing sexually transmitted diseases because the Philippine government fails to provide adequate school education programs on safe-sex practices, particularly condom use.

President Rodrigo Duterte issued an executive order on January 10, 2017, that directed the Department of Education to implement a “gender sensitive and rights-based” sexuality education in schools. That education can and should include promoting condom use and help make them more accessible to young, sexually active Filipinos. Officials who try to block condom access in schools will needlessly increase the likelihood of more HIV transmissions among young people.