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“Yes, nakaagi nako. (Yes, I have tried it.) confessed “Josh”, a 14-year-old, grade 8 student to his friends when asked if he has already experienced having sex.  "Murag di ko kabalo unsaon og himo sa insakto k walay nagtudlo nako. (But I don’t think I knew how to do it safely, because nobody taught me.)"

Josh is among many young Filipinos who start having sex at an early age. When young Filipinos aged 15-19 were asked about their first sexual experience, it was only 46% who answered that they had indeed wanted to have sex at that time.  29% said that they had not planned on having sex at that time but it happened anyway. 22% did not even want to have sex but went along with it.

Lack of knowledge, the fastest-growing HIV

Among the six major economies in the ASEAN region, the Philippines has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies -- the only country where the rate is increasing. Likewise, recent reports say that the Philippines has the fastest-growing HIV epidemic in the world, growing at the pace of a 240% increase in the past 10 years. Data from the Department of Health show that in July 2019, 31% of the newly-diagnosed HIV-positive Filipinos were 15-24 years old. 

Josh shared, “I don’t know much about HIV and AIDS.” His friend, “CJ,” also 14, added, “We don’t learn about HIV and AIDS in school, and we don’t talk about it with our families.”

According to Maroz Ramos of GALANG, a feminist organization, "Filipino adolescents lack the appropriate knowledge and access to sexual and reproductive health services. The same lack of knowledge and access makes in particular young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) people even more vulnerable, especially when they are still learning more about their true self and sexuality.  If they cannot talk to their families, they cannot always make well-informed decisions about their actions and behaviors, which then could lead to various unfavorable outcomes."

Education as the most powerful protection

With the fastest-growing HIV epidemic in the world, new approaches are needed in providing information to young people so that they can have adequate life skills to make appropriate decisions related to their sexual and reproductive health. 

Throughout December, which has been designated as AIDS Awareness Month in the Philippines starting with the observance of World AIDS Day (1 December), the government and civil society partners are intensifying advocacy, as well as various HIV prevention activities, activities leading up to the end of the year.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN sexual and reproductive health agency, has been supporting the Department of Education in rolling out the Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) in schools, as an age-appropriate, curriculum-based process of teaching about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality.  CSE will be integrated into the Kinder to Grade 12 curriculum and discussed in various school subjects. 

Hope in a “Beshie” Bag

UNFPA is also supporting the community-based sexuality education initiatives among young people in low-resource communities in Cebu through the “BESHIE Bag.” The term “beshie” can be loosely translated to “a good friend.” It uses a light portable backpack that transforms into the learning materials when unpacked. The education sessions revolving around the learning materials bring a novel and interactive approach to reproductive health and life skills discussion.

Equipping young people with the correct set of knowledge and adequate life skills through CSE and BESHIE Bag education sessions, will enable those young people themselves to take a pivotal role in reversing the HIV epidemic in the Philippines.

CJ and Josh recently participated in a BESHIE Bag session. “It was fun, and we learned a lot about HIV, sexually transmitted infections, and condoms,” said CJ. 

Josh has then shared the learnings with friends and schoolmates. Josh cited an important takeaway for young people from participating in the UNFPA-supported education sessions: “We don’t have special rights.  What we have are equal rights.”


- Ced Apilado