The Panitian Experiment

More than 100 parents were already gathered in the mini-gym of Panitian National High School when we arrived around 8:45 in the morning. The Ugat ng Kalusugan teachers were already there, ready to go. There were in the crowd a surprising number of men along with the women, and a good scattering of Lolos and Lolas. Most were in everyday clothes, jeans and t-shirts or more traditional Pala’wan garb. Many had that far away squint that farmers get from looking into the sun for too long.


We were met by the very lively Principal Ma’am Mylin Billiones and the energetic Guidance Counselor Ma’am Lorna Manalo. We had been in Panitian High School some months before to teach modules on Puberty and Reproductive Health to the students, but now we had been invited to work with parents on how to engage with their children in talking about sex, risky behavior, and health.


We’ve all heard the anti-Comprehensive Sexual Education argument that this ought to be handled by the family, but we know all too well that most parents cannot and will not do this, often enough because there are so many things they do not know, and then of course because sex is such a taboo topic. Even teachers are uneasy dealing with these matters. That is why we at Ugat ng Kalusugan do what we do – we try to fill the void of both education and services in Reproductive Health.


But here, in Panitian, we found a tremendously hopeful situation. Here was a school that really served as a community center, brought parents in, made them part of what was going on. Principal Billiones knew the names of the parents, and you could tell they were easy there, had been there many times before. The last learning session the school had presented was to teach parents a bit of technology, so they would know how to use cell phones at least. Now they were there to talk about communication and to voice their concerns for their children.


And no one was in denial. The school had had several pregnancies and they were concerned. The parents knew many teens were sexually active, and recognized that their own teens could be involved as well. They were also aware that HIV was a new danger. And they all wanted to work together to help each other meet these challenges.


We did spend time helping the parents understand the basics of pregnancy and contraception, and the spread of sexually transmitted infections. We did talk about gender issues and assure parents that all gender orientations were basically normal. And we did lead parents back to think about their own lives and what they were feeling when they were 14 or 15, when they first had crushes and fell in love. People did ask a few questions and make a few jokes and have a few laughs.


But we centered our attention on communication, and we started this out with a story in which a 15 year old girl tells her mother, in a quiet, private conversation, that her friend is being pressured into a sexual relationship by her boyfriend. What should she do?


In the first possible ending, the mother goes judgmental, tells her daughter that is horrible, she shouldn’t be friends with that girl, she shouldn’t talk about such terrible things, etc. The girl of course goes silent. And – you guessed it – the friend is actually the girl herself, and the relationship does proceed, but the mother doesn’t find out. We led the parents on to possible, generally grim, continuations for this story.


In ending two, the mother stays calm and sympathetic and points out some of the dangers the friend will be facing, and considers seriously what might go into the girl’s decision. She intuits her daughter is talking about herself, and keeps the channels opened – and the girl follows her mother’s lead and thinks more carefully, and decides to wait until after high school graduation!


The next thing we knew, parents and a few teachers and even the principal were all telling their own stories, and some were teary eyed, saying they had handled the situation badly but would try to do better!


Our team went home elated, thankful for the work we do, and especially thankful for school officials like Principal Mylin Billiones and Guidance Counselor Lorna Manalo!

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