Q & A: 'Many Still think That If You Have It, You'll Die'

Danton Remoto in Bali, Indonesia. Photo by Inter Press Service

Q & A: ‘Many Still Think That If You Have It, You’ll Die’
2009 August 10, 2009
Inter Press Service News Agency

Nusa Dua, Bali -- The Philippines is a low-HIV prevalence country in South-east Asia. But according to journalist and activist Danton Remoto, who is also the Communications Officer of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Philippines, there are still many underreported and unreported cases. “The figures could be ten times higher,” said Remoto, known more in his home country as a multi-awarded literary writer and chair of Ladlad, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender political party.

Remoto talks to TerraViva’s Lynette Corporal about his advocacy and his views about the Philippine situation on HIV and AIDS.TerraViva: What is the HIV/AIDS situation in the Philippines right now?

Remoto: The Philippines has one of the lowest incidences of HIV transmission in the region. From 1984 to May 2009, we only had around 3,914 cases of infection in the last 15 years. That’s really small but many of us who work in the advocacy believe that the figure is 10 times more than that. These cases of underreporting stem mainly from lack of information due to stigma, discrimination and fear. Many Filipinos still think that if you have it, you will die. But, of course, that is not the case because anti-retroviral drugs help people with HIV and AIDS lead healthy lives.

TerraViva: But despite these underreported cases, the Philippines is a low-HIV prevalence country. How do you explain that?

Remoto: Yes, compared to the rest of Asia, the Philippines has a low prevalence rate. We’re an island nation and quite isolated from the rest of Asia. But it doesn’t mean that Filipinos should be complacent. The figure is rising now, especially among young people. The Internet also makes it possible for them to easily find sexual partners. Unfortunately, these young people also engage in unprotected sex for a number of reasons, among them a ‘bahala na’ (come what may) attitude among the young and (one) of complacency and shortsightedness. We’re talking about young, educated youth here.

According to a Pulse Asia survey three months ago, 97 percent of Filipinos favour reproductive health practices. But being in favour doesn’t necessarily mean they practice it, especially among those in the lower-income bracket. For instance, a can of sardines costs 11 pesos, while a three-piece condom pack sells for 15 pesos. For these families, there is no question that a can of sardines is more important. Fifteen pesos for a lot of poor Filipinos in the rural areas still means a lot.

TerraViva: What changes have you noted in terms of transmission trends?

Remoto: It used to be that the biggest at-risk groups were commercial sex workers. They still are, but recent figures show an increase in infection among men having sex with men (MSM) and overseas Filipino workers (OFW). The highest number of transmission now is by returning OFWs who engaged in unsafe sexual practices while abroad. They, in turn, transmit the disease to their partners.

TerraViva: What kind of political will are you seeing in the present Philippine government?

Remoto: What happens now is that the local governments are more active in the advocacy for HIV/AIDS, especially in such places as Angeles City in the province of Pampanga where there once was a thriving sex and entertainment centre, when the U.S. bases were still around. Sex workers there have health checks every week, and are given information about HIV and AIDS. Local government units are given free rein to formulate their own policies about sexual and reproductive health, but there are very few local AIDS councils nationwide due in part to budgetary constraints.

TerraViva: How does one advocate HIV and AIDS prevention when you have a primarily Roman Catholic population?

Remoto: The Catholic Church, obviously, does not advocate reproductive health, discouraging condom use and instead pushing for abstinence and fidelity. But we all have roles to play and we at UNDP continue to work towards the achievement of Millennium Development Goal 6, which is to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis. We also work with interfaith groups, among which the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines is an active participant. We are also in touch with Muslim leaders from the south. It’s all about involving different faiths in the loop through dialogues and consultations.

TerraViva: What has struck you most so far about ICAAP9?

Remoto: On Aug. 6, I attended the South-east Asian Court of Women on HIV and Trafficking, where 22 migrant workers from the region told their stories of abuses. Seven of these women are Filipinos who ended up either as sex workers or trafficked women. This tells us about the vulnerabilities of and risks that women face when they work abroad. The OFW scenario is not so much now about the cost of separation between parents and children; it is also now more about the HIV vulnerabilities of OFWs, including seafarers and women who work abroad as domestic helpers and entertainers, for instance. (END/IPSAP-TV/09)

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