Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte demonstrated reckless disregard for the health of Filipinos this week by suggesting they avoid using condoms because they “aren’t pleasurable.” During an address to returning overseas migrant workers, mostly women, Duterte instead advised them to use “free” contraceptive pills and illustrated his point by putting a wrapped piece of candy in his mouth. “Here, try eating it without unwrapping it,” he told them. “Eat it. That’s what a condom is like.”
For Duterte’s supporters, the comment was just the latest of his “humorous asides” – like when he supposedly wisecracked about emulating Hitler in enshrining mass murder as state policy or joshed about the gang rape and murder of an Australian nun. But it’s irresponsible for the Philippine president to downplay the importance of condoms at a time when the Philippines is experiencing the fastest growing epidemic of HIV in the Asia-Pacific region.
Condom use can be key for reproductive health but for many years the Catholic Church has sought to restrict access to condoms in the largely Catholic country. It is at the center of UNAIDS anti-HIV strategy because they are “cost-effective tools for preventing [HIV and] other sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies.” Condoms also have an important role in assisting the 81 percent of Filipino women who want to delay or prevent childbearing and in helping to reduce the country’s high maternal mortality rate.
Policies restricting access to condoms are a threat to public health. International law obligates states to ensure access to condoms and related HIV prevention services as part of the human right to the highest attainable standard of health. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ratified by the Philippines in 1974, directs governments to take steps necessary for the “prevention, treatment, and control of epidemic … diseases,” including HIV/AIDS.
Instead of criticizing condoms as a pleasure inhibitor, Duterte should take meaningful action to protect the health of Filipinos by backing urgently needed policy changes to expand the accessibility and use of condoms in the Philippines.