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Safer sex with the butterfly brigade

Boracay is a popular destination for tourists Flickr
Boracay is a popular destination for tourists
A group of gay activists in the Philippines calling themselves the "Butterfly Brigade" are leading an innovative campaign to raise awareness of sexual health and HIV prevention that will soon be copied in 10 of the country's poorest provinces.

It began on the southern Philippine island of Aklan in 2001, where the group used a strategy of combining entertainment and information to communicate their message. The intervention is now considered a "best practices model" for reproductive health programmes.

With the help of provincial health offices and local government units, the Butterfly Brigade got a grant from the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) to conduct training in peer education for safer sex in Boracay, one of Aklan's municipalities.

The white sand beaches and dynamic nightlife of Boracay make it a well-known and popular destination for local and international tourists. The beachfront is lined with bars and discos that are hot spots for sex work and the favoured cruising sites for MSM [men who have sex with men].

To reach their target audience, the Butterfly Brigade used an informal learning approach to encourage open discussion of issues considered taboo in conservative Philippine society.

"We considered the lifestyle and culture of the MSM community and used every possible way to reach out to them. The adult learning principles of participatory and interactive elements are incorporated in music and visuals encouraging people to ask questions," said Joseph "Caca" Carillo, the Butterfly Brigade's head of External Affairs and one of its pioneer members.

"Training was also conducted from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., when most of the gay men would be cruising for sex. Instruction modules were conducted in gay lingo to facilitate an open discussion. Talking about issues in a humorous way made the participants more comfortable and honest - the atmosphere is like a community hanging out, talking, and we deliberately set it up that way."

Changing stigma

HIV prevalence in the Philippines is estimated at less than 0.1 percent - one of the lowest rates in the region - but few people have been tested, and experts suspect the real numbers could well be higher.

''Talking about issues in a humorous way made the participants more comfortable and honest''
Health officials have warned that widespread sex work, inconsistent condom use, early sexual initiation and multiple partnerships could trigger a more serious epidemic.

The Butterfly Brigade has broadened their audience to include HIV awareness training for police officers, merchants, boatmen and tricycle drivers. In 2008 the group partnered the local chapter of the Philippine National Police (PNP) in bringing reproductive health education to young people.

Despite the difficulties of promoting respect for gays in a conservative Catholic society, the efforts of the Butterfly Brigade have been crucial in prompting the Aklan health system to offer a full package of HIV-related services that includes condom promotion, voluntary testing and counselling, and care.

"Previously, the health seeking behaviour [of MSM] was very low. After the training, the number of MSM availing of the services at social hygiene clinics increased," said Debbie Villaflor, a nurse at the provincial health clinic who has worked with the Butterfly Brigade.

Dr Jovanni Templonuevo, a UNFPA programme officer, noted: "The Butterfly Brigade is recognized as champions. Within their own province they are being invited to help others establish their own peer education groups among smaller MSM communities."

The Butterfly Brigade recently embarked on a social marketing campaign for condoms and has succeeded in having condom vending machines installed in Boracay's pickup spots, making it probably the only place in the Philippines where condom vending machines are easily available.

"The vending machines are meant to cater to men, women and MSM," said Carillo. "We are also working on making condoms available in all the hotels and establishments managed by the municipal health office."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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