BANGKOK, Thailand – “Would you like some condoms with your meal?”
In any other restaurant, that would seem like a completely inappropriate question – except this is Cabbages & Condoms, a quirky restaurant in Bangkok where you can get a sex education served right along with your dessert. (READ: This Bangkok restaurant is covered in condoms – for good reason)
Former Thai government minister Mechai Viravaidya started Cabbages & Condoms advocating what he must have thought made for a balanced diet: eating your vegetables and practicing safe sex.
In the 70s, Viravaidya founded Population and Community Development Association (PDA), an NGO that advocates family planning for the rural poor. Viravaidya believed that a generous helping of humor and a pinch of irreverence take out the bad aftertaste of shame that often comes with discussing sex and birth control.
He put this theory to the test in the early 90s when Thailand was faced with a burgeoning HIV epidemic. Back then, Thailand had about 100,000 HIV cases. In just three years, the number had risen to almost 1 million.
Already known for his work in promoting family planning, the Thai Prime Minister tasked Viravaidya to launch an HIV public information program. An estimated $44M went into an HIV/AIDS prevention campaign centered on sex education and access to free condoms.
Viravaidya left no stone, school or temple in Thailand unturned. He went on a crusade to promote safe sex and family planning in what some saw as controversial ways. Sure, free condoms were given out at brothels and massage parlors but that was just the start.
Viravaidya asked monks to bless contraceptives; he launched condom-blowing contests in schools to familiarize students and their teachers with the love glove and even had police officers giving out condoms in the streets in an initiative called, "Cops and Rubbers."
“Commuters stuck in Bangkok’s traffic jams make for a perfect captive audience,” explained Viravaidya.
Additionally, Thailand was bombarded with HIV awareness and prevention messages aired every hour across the country’s 488 radio stations and 6 TV stations.
In an interview, Viravaidya was quoted as advising parents to be open-minded about teaching their kids safe sex: “We need to look for ways to let children know that condoms are part of daily life like salt and pepper.”
According to the United Nations, there was a 90% decline in new HIV infections over a 12 year period from 1991. Data shows that prevention programs made of public awareness, condom access and testing helped nearly 10 million people avoid HIV infection.
On the family planning front, the annual population rate went from 3.3% in 1979 to 0.6% in 2005 and the number of children went down from 7 to 2.
Despite a slight resurgence of new HIV infection rates in the late 90s and early 2000s when Thailand suffered from the Asian crisis, affecting health budgets, Thailand has been able to bounce back.
A recent UNAIDS report showed that annual new HIV infections dropped by 50% in Thailand between 2010 and 2016, the steepest decline for any country in the Asia and the Pacific region.
Viravaidya remains a legend in the public health sector and continues to hold the title “Condom King”, Cabbages & Condoms is a popular tourist attraction and Thais still sometimes refer to condoms as "mechais." – Rappler.com
Ana P. Santos traveled to Bangkok as one of the 2018 Equity Initiative Fellows. The Equity Initiative works to advance health equity in Southeast Asia and China.