In the Philippines, the religious taboo on sex, gender, and sexuality remains prevalent. This taboo represents a major challenge in HIV prevention and sexual and reproductive health services for children and young people. As a response, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) is now working on sex, gender, and sexuality modules.
1. Understanding how faith influences knowledge
Research demonstrates that faith-based organizations influence HIV knowledge in the youth.
In 2014, after engaging 213 teenage Pentecostal Botswana church members, Mpofu et al. found that the church youth “conceptually frame their HIV prevention from both faith-oriented and secular-oriented perspectives. They prioritize the faith-oriented concepts based on biblical teachings and future focus.”
The NCCP notes the effects on the youth of the church’s silence on sexuality.
“Sometimes young people feel the need to talk about sexuality. But because the church as a whole is not talking about it; they feel that it is not worth talking about inside the church,” said Ms. Arceli Bile, Acting Program Secretary of the Program Unit on Ecumenical Education and Nurture of the NCCP.
2. Breaking the silence
“We find it unfortunate that issues on sexuality are not discussed in the open due to a wrong perception that sex talk is indecent talk,” said Bile.
“Thus, in 2015, the NCCP General Convention approved a statement on creating safe spaces for discussing human sexuality. We offered this to member churches and associate members. We need to provide material that would help the discussions,” Bile added.
Giving sex education is mandated by the Reproductive Health Law signed in 2010 by then-President Benigno Aquino III. Specifically, comprehensive sexual education is to be incorporated into science, health, English, and physical education courses. This education begins in grade 5 and extends through grade 12. However, opposition by the Roman Catholic Church continues. They believe that sex education encourages the young to engage in sex outside marriage earlier.
As of July 2016, the Department of Education has yet to develop the minimum standards of sex education. Once developed, schools and other learning facilities should comply with the standards.
3. Knowing that the youth are most harmed
The low level of knowledge and awareness in the youth on sex-related matters – including on HIV – has increased vulnerability. Risks are higher among key affected populations, particularly in young women, gay, bisexual, other males who have sex with males, and transgender people.
A 2013 survey by the University of the Philippines Population Institute showed that 1 out of 3 Filipino youths (aged 15–24) has had pre-marital sex. More alarming than this is the fact that 78% of those who had pre-marital sex for the first time in this age bracket did not use any protection against pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections.
Not surprising then is the significant rise in the incidence of HIV among the same age group as well as a rise in teenage pregnancy noted from 2014 to 2018. In 2016, 14% of all the AIDS-related deaths reported in the country were in youth aged 15–24 years old.
4. Making churches come together
In 2015, NCCP conducted a study on HIV-related efforts among its member churches. It revealed that member churches strongly support comprehensive sex and sexuality education. The study also described existing efforts by the churches on sex and sexuality education to children and youth. These efforts are often integrated in existing church initiatives. These efforts included discussions of human sexuality in Christian education in schools, youth gatherings (usually for those aged 12 and up), sex education classes, and youth camps.
However, not specified in the study were the age brackets of the young people reached and the types of sex and sexuality education offered. In addition, none of the education efforts included sex and sexuality issues of LGBT youth.
As a response, the NCCP, in partnership with the Church of Sweden, gathered theologians and academics in 2016. They worked on a framework that comprised objectives and key concepts in providing discussions on sex, gender, and sexuality.
“We had our study sessions and reflections on how this can be embraced by the churches or not. Especially on issues on Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression,” said Bile. “We discussed this thoroughly because the writers still have a lot of confusion. Especially on how we can use more inclusive terms in dealing with younger children. Sometimes we consider whether they really need to know these concepts at such an early age.”
5. Valuing the local context
“In localizing this educational material in the Philippines, we need to understand these concepts in our context. This understanding would result in experiential activities. We should provide something that they can relate to, instead of getting some ideas from elsewhere,” said Bile.
The material will cater to nursery and kindergarten students, up to senior high school.
“We hope this material could be of help in providing safe spaces for discussion, then, we will conduct pilot tests to check if this is appropriate. We are thinking of holding training on how to facilitate this as well as check for revisions and modifications,” added Bile.
6. Transforming theologies
Ms. Bile anticipates some resistance from the churches but remains hopeful.
“The theological understanding of the body may be one of the controversies in accepting this kind of material. What we hope is that we are also producing a theology that is more inclusive and non-discriminatory,” she said. “This material would promote a theology that challenges the churches to be more compassionate and open, as well as, one that reaches out especially those who are discriminated.”