NEWS | Sunday, 18 November 2007

The jolly debate on campus

Someone had to start a petition to get people talking about it once again. At Tal-Qroqq, students are violently racking their brains to get… a condom machine installed on campus, MATTHEW VELLA reports.

Would you find it to be a sad portrayal of youth that at the very stage in life where – and this is the old-fashioned way of looking at things – experimenting with drugs, sex, general joshing about and protesting against the establishment should be the norm, students at the University of Malta are still without the luxury of a condom vending machine?
Sounds like a mindless antediluvian scene from 1950s Americana, where the genteel white folk are fighting the bussing of black kids into their suburban high schools. But, as an online petition recently reminded us, this unrealistic puritanism survives at Tal-Qroqq right up to 2007. And so far, the give-us-condoms campaign has only managed to attract a trifling 200 signatures: one-fortieth of the university’s 8,000 plus population.
The petition, its author claims, is “necessary” given the resistance to past attempts to introduce a condom machine at university, while highlighting the fact that Maltese youths are believed, according to a recent survey, to have one of the lowest rates of safe sex in Europe given their resistance to contraception. So, given the least desired consequences of unprotected sex, the petition argues, condoms should be readily available on the university campus.
It’s become somewhat of a joke to revive the old condom-on-campus debate. The Malta Medical Students Association regularly pass out condoms as part of their awareness campaign on World AIDS Day and actively promotes sexual health awareness through a dedicated sub-committee. But their campaign is not without its drawbacks, especially since Church schools barred the association from bringing their campaign to secondary and post-secondary schools under the ecclesiastical auspices. A spokesperson for the association complains about encountering general hostility to the campaign although in January the MMSA will be taking its reproductive health mission to 50 government secondary schools.
But there are other stories in which anything remotely impenetrable to the human sperm has been resisted at university, one of them narrated by internet media sage Toni Sant about the indomitable environmentalist and MaltaToday journalist Julian Manduca: “Julian had come up with the idea to have a condom vending machine installed on Campus, and I joined his campaign. Through KSU we presented a motion for the Senate, which was refused instantly. Eventually we decided to pass out condoms and a booklet on safe sex for World Aids Day.”
And that was 1993. To this day, the prophylactic drought at university rages on, and the mere plea for the installation of a vending machine still demands a protesting signature by the sexually active petitioners at the university in need for an urgent midday cuddle in between double history.
The petition has so far rustled a mere 200 signatures – too low considering the population at Tal-Qroqq. Maybe nobody cares, maybe this is no real issue for university students. Some entries to the petition, the ones which do not resort to underlining the importance of the ‘campaign’, are humorous: “provide condoms… we want to shag”. Another absurd entry makes a consolatory remark: “but at least we have hot dog stands, no?” Another ludicrous offshoot emanating from the debate is a Facebook group dubbed the Malta University Virgins Club, whose professed aim is “to defend the rights of virgin students on campus”.
Maybe the issue is not a real priority at the university. When the news of the petition got out, spokespersons from the Catholic university students group (MKSU) immediately signalled religious effrontery, telling newspaper Kullhadd the condom machine would send out the message that sex was “something fun” and not love (the mere ludicrousness of the statement, if quoted correctly, makes one suspect the Church has despatched pre-programmed un-fun androids on campus).
What’s stranger however is the lack of enthusiasm from some of the people who have already spoken on the matter. Like David Herrera, the KSU president, saying the issue was not a priority, and of course… it had not yet been discussed in KSU’s politburo. Even Pulse, the social democrats’ students group, says the issue is no priority although it would support the idea. Worryingly however, if the past is anything to go by, the KPS – which groups various student organisations on campus to vote on policy – has already dealt with the grand vending machine debate two years ago. As a member from the medical students association says, the proposal got “stuck” – much like the rest of everything on campus, it seems. The fate of the condom machine on the university grounds appears destined to a mystifyingly jammed position.
But if ever there was a reason to make sure condoms and other methods of contraception become even more accessible, then the recent Bayer Schering Pharma survey is surely one.
According to Bayer’s Yasminelle Opinion Poll, carried out by Ipsos to explore sexual behaviour and general attitudes regarding sex and contraception, 62% of the Maltese respondents – a sample of 200 aged 18-49 – failed to protect themselves during sex, preferring withdrawal or use no contraception at all.
Of course, its scientific basis can be brought into question because of its low sample. But it carves a faint picture of the Maltese being impervious to the notion of safe sex. As noted by Dr Philip Carabot in the first year of operation of the Genito-Urinary clinic he heads, three-quarters of the patients seen regularly had admitted to having had sex without condoms.
Possibly, this high rate of carelessness may tie in with other statistics in the Bayer poll, namely that the Maltese spread an average of four lovers across their sex life. Rather poorly. And possibly suggesting a low rate of promiscuity – debatable as that may sound – which may not conjure up such urgency for the prerequisites of safe sex.
But you could also point fingers at more worrying stats, such as the rate of Malta’s teenage mothers, which increased drastically in 2005 by 55 per cent over the average of the five years before. Forty births were registered in 2005 by mothers aged 16. Another 14 were registered to child-mums under 16. It was the highest number of teenage births in five years.
But in 2007, new light was thrown on the rate of young pregnancies – where 219 out of 812 births to unmarried mothers involved teenagers aged 15 to 19. Four babies were born to mothers younger than 15. Taken together, this works out at almost 27 per cent of the total rate of unmarried mothers, placing Malta squarely in the middle of the “teenage birth league” table, between Austria (14) and the Czech Republic (16.4). The highest by far is the United States (50.2), followed by the UK (30.8). The bottom three are Korea (2.9), Japan (4.6) and Switzerland (5.5).
But the hard job of getting a condom machine on university seems to mirror much of what goes on in public life. And that’s where the problem becomes worrying. Such as the alleged pressure cited by former health czar Mario Spiteri, the well-known public face of the health promotion department, who claimed he had “very strongly-based suspicions” that the invisible hand of the Church had been behind his surprise removal after refusing to promote abstinence exclusively as the only means of prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.
Spiteri said he had a serious clash with the church’s commission for youth (Kummissjoni Djocesana Zghazagh – KDZ) when they asked for the department’s funding to finance their campaign promoting sexual abstinence. “My first allegiance is towards the public, and promoting abstinence is something from another era. Who’s going to buy that? I couldn’t do that and sleep comfortably when the World Health Organisation clearly lists abstinence alongside sexual loyalty and condoms as the best ways to avoid STDs.”
Back on campus, where the mere debate of a life-saving rubber jolly turns into another exciting chapter for a hotbed of angry stipend-guzzlers, every sperm stays sacred.

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