A journey to discover the people who change our world.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Condoms and Cabbages

A condom in Thailand is known colloquially as a ‘Mechai’. Mechai Viravaidya, the founder of Population and Community Development Association (PDA) is known in Thailand as ‘Mr. Condom’. It’s no coincidence.

Back in the 80s, Mechai realised that a potential AIDS epidemic could erupt, and knew the time to intervene was critical. So he donned a ‘Captain Condom’, Superman-esque outfit and started distributing condoms around Bangkok. He’d go into the red lights district and host condom blowing competitions. There was also a Miss Condom beauty competition. He’d travel on buses dressed as Captain Condom and distribute safe sex and health information. He said at the time, ‘If Thais remain unaware of the dangers of AIDS, it will soon be too late to prevent the deadly disease from spreading. We have to try to keep the disease under control’.

Mechai’s antics were laughed at, but importantly he got noticed. More importantly, so did his message, not only by the public, but also the government.

The government saw the need to intervene on a wider scale. The army was mobilised and 326 army controlled radio stations and the army run TV station launched a 3 year educational campaign to help prevent the further spread of HIV. The business community were also targeted, with Mechai proclaiming, ‘dead staff don’t produce and dead customers don’t buy’. Businesses listened. About 100 corporations enrolled in PDA’s ‘Corporate Education Programme’, training staff about AIDS.

Over the coming years PDA were at the forefront of Health education in Thailand, working across society, with sex workers, in factories, in prisons, in villages, in schools, at border crossings. They continued to mobilise government interest and also set the tone among the NGO world, desensitizing condom use.

The statistics around STD prevalence rates in this time are a testament to the intervention work. In 1989 the Ministry of Public Health reported 410,406 STD cases, representing 7.69 cases per 1000 of the population. By 1997 this had fallen to 22,765 cases, or 0.38 per 1000, and since that time has continued to fall. Condom use is also up, dramatically. The use of condoms by commercial sex workers in 1989 was reported to be 25%, by 1993 it was up to 92%. In all, sexual behaviour was radically altered, saving lives.

PDA has grown and diversified over the years. Family planning. Refugee education. Rural development. Microfinance. Post tsunami rehabilitation. Each strand taking innovative measure to create change. There is a book in this alone!

Interestingly too, PDA run commercial businesses including a restaurant and two resorts called Condoms and Cabbages.

I sampled a meal and spent a weekend camping at one of the resorts in the hills north of Bangkok. Quirky, fun, beautiful settings, and importantly profits get driven back into PDA. I’ll drink to that.. and eat to that, and swim to that, and camp to that...

(Mechai was last week named by Times Magazine Asia as one the Heroes of the last 60 years. He is one of two Thai people named, the other is the King)

(Home for a few days while staying at Condoms and Cabbages, SapTai)


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