Focus on sex education: eyes on Manila

In the United States Congress right now sex education programs that teach abstinence only as the standard for adolescents have become a bargaining chip in a political game. It is a game that may ultimately see federal support for chastity among young people follow President Bush out the door of the White House.
But another congress that is about to convene thousands of miles away offers a much more cheerful prospect. Hundreds of delegates from family organisations around the world will meet in Manila on November 20 to share experience of educating young people about chastity and love, listen to wisdom and research on the subject, listen to young people themselves, and advance what the organisers are calling a "real love revolution." 

'We are trying to ensure that the fruits of the congress last a long
time, and for this reason we are staking a lot on the motivation it
will give the young people present.' 

Certain experts are annoyed at the abstinence-only movement. They harp on the need for a comprehensive approach, by which they mean that they want to talk to kids mainly about taking the pill and using condoms when the youngsters (inevitably, in their view) start experimenting with sex. People coming to Manila also want to talk about more than abstinence. A lot more. They want to talk about love, respect, strength of character, emotional intelligence, empowerment, responsibility and life goals, including marriage. You can't get more comprehensive than that.

It is no accident that the Second International Congress on Education in Love, Sex, and Life should be taking place in the Philippines, or that the first was held last year in Mexico. Both are developing countries with young and increasing populations. Both are therefore of great interest to the international population control movement -- the Philippines even more than Mexico since the latter is well along the path to replacement fertility (or less), while the former is somewhat behind. 

The Philippines, with its unique mix of Spanish Catholicism and Asian family values, and its 91 million people, is an affront to population pessimists. The country adopted a population control policy under Ferdinand Marcos in the 1960s, but methods of family planning have always been controversial. The current president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, has promoted natural family planning and phased out a USAID program that supplies contraceptives. The prospect of a supply of free contraceptives drying up by the end of next year has sparked a vigorous campaign among family planning groups who allege -- using generous estimates of illegal abortion and maternal deaths -- that lack of cheap contraceptives and the absence of "safe" legal abortion is responsible for the country's high maternal mortality rate and poverty. 

While this debate rages in the country's congress and press, the future is being forged by grassroots initiatives among young people (and 56 per cent of Filipinos are under 25). These include I Am Strong, a program of character-building seminars for high school students now in its 10th year and endorsed by the Philippines Department of Education. The program, which also has corporate sponsorship, will feature at the Love, Sex and Life congress among others from the United States, Latin America, Asia and Australia.

I Am Strong (steadfast, trustworthy, respectful, open-minded, noble and gutsy) illustrates many of the themes of the congress, says director Dr Antonio Torralba, who is also Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Asia and the Pacific. One of the most important of these themes is the input and leadership of young people themselves.

"All our facilitators for I Am Strong are senior college students, college graduates or young professional workers, who are well prepared, know what is going on in the minds of younger people and are able to relate to them easily. Parents, who are very much in the picture for us, are happy about this and see the seminars as a way of understanding their children better." Seminars for parents are currently being developed.

So far the program has reached, directly, 25,000 students in 15 of the 18 regions of the archipelago, and Dr Torralba estimates that it has touched about two million people indirectly. Many of the young leaders will be participating in the congress sessions, and many others at a youth event which concludes it.

No educational program can go far these days without scientific support -- least of all anything promoting chastity -- and this has not been overlooked in Manila. A study has been undertaken with the help of the Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at the University of Navarre in Spain. Conducted by the faculty's deputy director, Dr Jokin de Irala, the study combines a survey of 4000 high school and college students and focus group discussions among parents, teachers and students in seven regions of the country.

The research has gathered information on three subjects: the perceptions, values and motives of adolescents regarding relationships, love and sexuality; the influence of the home and external forces such as school, peer groups and the media on teens' perceptions of sexuality; and parents' assessments of existing efforts at forming young people's attitudes to sex.

Results from the study, says Dr de Irala, show that the vast majority of adolescents in the Philippines (75 per cent) have not had sex and are more interested in learning about other aspects of relationships, such as how to manage their emotions and sexual impulses. "They want to know how to be able to date someone without having to have sex, and this has more to do with character education than with the biological information that is emphasised in the programs of international family planning agencies." More results will be presented at the congress.

With character education heavyweights such as Thomas Lickona and Kevin Ryan delivering papers, alongside veteran chastity educator Colleen Kelly Mast, Heritage Foundation family research fellow Patrick Fagan and a variety of other experts, congress delegates are guaranteed to get plenty of meat to chew on. Even more important, perhaps, will be the conviction "that they are not alone in their campaign for good family life and character education," says Dr Torralba.

"We are trying to ensure that the fruits of the congress last a long time, and for this reason we are staking a lot on the motivation it will give the young people present," he adds. So, when the winning entries from a Keep Love Real song competition are performed on the final day, there will be more than budding artistic careers on the line; their enthusiasm for the message of chastity as the real way to find love could inspire a generation.

Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet.


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