CHIANG MAI, Thailand, Mar 14 (IPS Asia-Pacific) - Tun Yo may not have known much about the ways of the world when he first came to work in one of the orange groves here seven years ago. After all, he was just a young boy of 14 at the time and one of the thousands of Burmese migrants who pour into Thailand every year.
Indeed, even when he finally got married, chances are he knew little or nothing about family planning or reproductive health. In fact, Tun Yo probably could have cared less.
That, however, is no longer the case. As one of the participants in a project aimed at Burmese male migrants here in Chiang Mai, Tun Yo recently attended a reproductive-health training workshop that has inspired him to discuss birth control methods with his wife. In addition, he says, he has become conscious of sexual hygiene and has learned about how to avoid getting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV and /AIDS.
"I think compared to women, men are not interested much in their health," comments Dr. Samphan Kahinthapong, Northern Region director of the Planned Parenthood Association of Thailand (PPAT), which runs the project that received support from the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). "In fact, if men are responsible for their reproductive health, (that) will help both their health and their partner's."
It was this thinking that had PPAT creating and then implementing the project that began in June last year and ends in March 2011this month. Aside from offering training workshops that employ some of the migrants themselves as traineors, the project includes mobile clinics that provide contraceptives and treatment, as well as conduct tests for STDs.
In coming up with the project, PPAT had noted that most of the estimated two million Burmese migrants currently in Thailand have limited or no access to health services and education. Perhaps as a consequence, it said, the Burmese migrant community suffered from "early or unwanted pregnancies, early marriage, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs including HIV/AIDS), unsafe abortions, and violence against women".
The project aimed at providing information on sexual and reproductive health to 4,000 people and related services to 1,000 people. Male Burmese migrant workers at orange plantations, construction sites and elsewhere here in northern Thailand were the target beneficiaries.
It may have helped that most of these workers are Thai Yai, a Burmese ethnic minority in which relations between genders are more equal compared to those in other ethic groupstribes. Yet even then, some men admit to attitudinal changes after taking part in the project.
For instance, they say that they now don't think of household chores as being solely the burden of women, especially since both men and women these days work outside of the home.
One 37-year-old female worker also says, "It seemed to be embarrassing to talk about sex with my husband, but with the knowledge he now has, I tell him when I don't want to have sex because I have my period or when I'm so tired."
"He doesn't refuse when I ask him to buy my (sanitary pads)," she adds. "If we were in our home community in Mong Pan (in Shan state, Burma), I don't think he would buy them. The men there feel so embarrassed even to wash look at women's clothes."
Other male and female Burmese workers say that after undergoing training as part of the project, men seemed to respect and understand the women more. Participants showed more concern about having "quality" family life, they say.
Project officer Benjawan Srivichai also says increased understanding between the sexes is among the changes they have seen so far among the participants. "Males used to monopolise decision-making, but now they listen to each other more," she says. "We have heard more about men and women being equal. In addition, male and women workers have more access to reproductive-health services, condoms, and contraceptive pills."
PPAT is now thinking of extending the project's life span to ensure that such changes last. Dr. Samphan says as well that doing so would enable PPAT to expand the target beneficiaries to include boys. Moreover, he says, a long-term project would more suitable in addressing the seeming trend of early pregnancies.
Gender expert Niwat Suwanpattana meanwhile says that the PPAT project is a good initiative. But he thinks its focus is too limited to hygiene and contraception. Niwat, who is an advisor to the Thai Network Coalition on AIDS, says that he would like to see it move on to other directions, such as toward encouraging women to see sex beyond being a mere "duty" to their partners..
This is not the first time, though, that PPAT has had a project aimed at Burmese migrants in Chiang Mai. In recent years, it has provided reproductive-health services, but these were mainly for women migrants and consisted of gynaecological exams and pap smears, among others. P Yet while PPAT tends to have projects in the same areas for years, it has no problems with changing its programmes in accordance to the community's needs.
Migrant workers like Tun Yo couldn't be happier with its most recent initiative. Says Tun Yo: "I have never used condoms before, and now I know how to use it and that it is used not only for birth control but also for preventing HIV and other STDs."
"(My wife and I) are also discussing more about when we should have a baby," he says. According to Tun Yo, the project has made them realise there were many family birth control planning options they could choose from.
Orgnization: the Planned Parenthood Association of Thailand (PPAT)