Reportage

‘Butterfly Brigade’ takes flight to promote HIV prevention in the Philippines

28 August 2006

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In an unusual partnership with provincial authorities, a group of gay activists calling themselves the ‘Butterfly Brigade’ are leading an innovative community awareness campaign on sexual health and HIV prevention in the Philippines. Their work combines wide-reaching public education with social marketing of condoms and care for people living with HIV.

20060828-bfly2.jpgHealth education class is mandatory for massage parlour workers in Kalibo.

The Brigade was founded five years ago by a small group seeking to share knowledge within their own community. Since this time their efforts have blossomed into a network of 164 volunteers, mostly gay men, who run classes in 17 municipalities throughout Aklan province—in high schools and colleges, and within health programmes for women and men involved in sex work.

The Aklan province contains many booming resort areas where the campaign is making a critical difference. By day, the idyllic beaches are full of sunbathers, children frolicking in the water and tourists taking scuba diving lessons. By night, much of the province is a party zone, as local and foreign travellers sway to the music of reggae bands or drink beer in waterfront bars.

“Almost anyone could be at risk of acquiring HIV or another sexually transmitted infection,” said Municipal Health Officer Dr Adrian Salaver. “We can educate people about HIV prevention to try to help reduce those risks.”

HIV prevalence in the Philippines is estimated to be less than 0.1 per cent, one of the lowest rates in the region. But few people have been tested, and experts suspect the real numbers of people living with HIV to be higher. Widespread sex work, inconsistent condom use, early sexual initiation and multiple partnerships could trigger a more serious epidemic, as has occurred in other countries.

Aklan health officials recognize that the Butterfly Brigade’s frank approach to sexuality and strong prevention messages are part of an effective response to this threat. They started working with the initial core group in 2001 with support from the United Nations.

Members were trained to teach other gay men about the ways HIV is spread and how to protect themselves. As the trainers’ expertise increased, they developed their own curriculum and innovative techniques. They became known in their towns as health advocates and were asked to work with wider audiences.

One group that has benefited are the women who work in Aklan’s massage parlours and similar entertainment venues. Following awareness raising drives, employees are now required to have a health certificate indicating they have been tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and have attended a class on disease prevention and condom use.

20060828-bfly1.jpgPhoto: Albert Ilarina teaches sex workers to use condoms and avoid infection.

Albert Ilarina, chairperson of the Butterfly Brigade, teaches these classes at the Social Hygiene Clinic run by the Women’s Health and Safe Motherhood Project in Kalibo’s hospital.

Twenty-year old Grace has participated in some of Albert’s classes. Grace works in a massage parlour to support her small son and daughter. She earns 200 pesos (about $4) a day, but can make more if she leaves with a client and negotiates a price for other “services”. She explains how the Butterfly Brigade classes have underlined how important it is to try to negotiate condom use with clients. “Sometimes I use condoms, but about three of every five customers don’t want to use them,” she says. “I have had gonorrhoea but I never knew about HIV before. Now I am scared. I want to buy condoms and start using them every time.”

Benefits from the Butterfly Brigade’s initiative are evident throughout the province. The Aklan health system now offers a “full package” of HIV-related services, including condom promotion, voluntary testing and counselling, and care. Last year the United Nations provided antiretroviral drugs for 14 people living with HIV; the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria now supports their treatment.

“The Butterfly Brigade is fun to be a part of and we do help,” says Butterfly co-founder Nono Bantigue, a municipal counsellor in Balete and chair of the town’s Committee on Women’s and Children’s Welfare.

The programme also provides HIV awareness training to police officers and merchants, as well as to boatmen and tricycle drivers.  Brigade members have also persuaded Boracay officials to let them install a condom vending machine in an area known as a pickup spot.

“Local governments, the provincial health office and the local business sector have all recognized our work,” reports Bantigue. With support from the United Nations, municipal mayors and provincial health officials from all over the country have visited Aklan with a view to replicate its peer education network.

“The Butterfly Brigade are helping raise awareness and break down stigma – which is key to getting ahead of the epidemic in the Philippines,” said UNAIDS Country Coordinator for the Philippines, Dr. Marlyn Filio-Borromeo.

 

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