On May 21, 2018 the Philippine Senate approved a bill that seeks to replace the country’s 20 year-old AIDS Prevention and Control Act.
An epidemic that emerged in the country in the 1990s primarily among commercial sex workers has seen a 174% increase in numbers since 2010, making it the fastest growing HIV epidemic in the Asia-Pacific region. Although Philippines received international praise for its policies at the time, current numbers are a clear indication of the inadequacy of the existing laws.
Low condom use has been identified as the main reason for the explosion of numbers in the last decade, with the highest numbers among men who have sex with men, and transgender women who have sex with men. A 2016 Human Rights Watch report found the government’s failure to conduct national campaigns to promote condom use as the main reason for the influx. The report also mentions that government policies create obstacles for condom access and HIV testing, and the lack of proper sex education in schools can be seen as a reflection of the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in the region.
The new bill proposes an increase in resources for the government’s policy-making body on HIV/AIDS; lowering the age young people can be tested for HIV without parental consent from 18 to 15; prohibiting discrimination against people with HIV in the workplace; and making age-appropriate sex education in schools compulsory. Senator Risa Hontiveros, who co-authored the bill with Senator JV Ejercito, said the bill would “introduce newer evidence-based, human rights-informed, and gender-transformative strategies to prevent and treat the epidemic.” However, just like its predecessor, the proposed law fails to include provisions to direct the government in promoting condom use, reflecting the continuing influence of the Catholic Church over proper public health practice.
Following that, a partnership agreement has been signed between the League of Cities of the Philippines and UNAIDS (The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS) in July 2018 aimed at advocating condom use and comprehensive sex education to battle the HIV epidemic by convincing the government to break down barriers to these presented by the Church and conservative political leaders and lawmakers. “Phillipines has a small window of opportunity to act fast and stop a major HIV epidemic from taking hold” said Eamonn Murphy, UNAIDS Regional Director for the Asia and the Pacific.
The prevalence of HIV is highest amongst Filipinos aged 15-24, especially among men who have sex with men and transgender women who have sex with men. The discrimination and stigma because of their sexuality, and the lack of safe sex education makes them extremely vulnerable. Unless the government heeds UNAIDS’ advice, this epidemic is very likely to intensify.
The proposed law has been ratified by the House of Representatives as of October 10, 2018 and will be sent to the President for his signature once it is ratified by the Senate.
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