MANILA, Philippines ? Also known as the Pied Piper of Manila, Carlos Celdran is often seen leading a pack of enthusiastic tourists through the narrow streets of historic Intramuros and Binondo, regaling his guests with history laced with droll humor that nonetheless reveals the seamier side of the city.
He admits it is impossible to hide the poverty. ?My guests see the poverty throughout the tour,? Celdran explains. ?This is why it can?t just be about tourism. I had to squeeze in a social development angle somewhere since I stare poverty in the face daily.?
That social development angle Celdran found as an advocate of family planning. ?I?ve been distributing free condoms and birth control pills whenever we walked past squatter communities since 2003.?
In the beginning, this amused the people living in the countless shanties nearby. The flamboyant Spanish mestizo in a barong Tagalog, wearing a black top hat or a salakot has become a common sight around the Walled City and provided the residents with either a bit of entertainment or just something to be curious about.
?Who do you think eventually walks boldly up to me after I?ve shouted long and loud enough that I was giving out free birth control pills and condoms?? Celdran asks. ?No, it?s not the shirtless, unemployed men sitting around, nor the tattooed teenage boys with blonde mohawks and their girlfriends or the prostitutes. It?s the mothers carrying half-naked babies with malnourished toddlers at their heels who ask for the contraceptives.?
And they know what they want.
In a typical tour, the women come up to Celdran with a wish list longer than his tour: ?Ang gusto ko pills, Kuya. Pwede makahingi ng apat na box? (I like pills. May I ask for four boxes?),? asks Evelyn, 26. ?Ayaw kasi ng asawa ko ng condom (My husband doesn?t like to use condoms).? She looks older than her actual age and roughly introduces her five children, born barely a year apart. Her husband has been jobless for years but occasionally works at the pier to buy food that lasts for a few days. ?It is impossible to use natural methods because my husband beats me up when I refuse to have sex with him especially if he?s been drinking. This is the way of life of many wives here,? Evelyn admits in Filipino, grasping the boxes tightly. ?I can?t feed any more children since I?ve become too weak to accept laundry jobs.?
Dinlay Bacli, 37, who lives in a shack just a street away from the San Agustin Church in Intramuros with her husband and 10 children, has a similar story. ?My husband refuses to wear condoms and use the withdrawal method even if his job as a tricycle driver barely feeds us all,? she shares. ?I am afraid of the pill?s side effects but I want to take them even if I have no money to buy food because I don?t want any more children. ?
In her desperation, Dinlay pleads for Celdran to give her money for a ligation. ?A few of the women here have had ligations done for P500 in a small hospital,? she explains. ?They said it was painless and fast. It?s also much easier than asking our husbands to have vasectomies.?
By now a small crowd of noisy children, women and a few men have gathered around Celdran but he stops himself from handing a box of pills to a pretty and petite girl. ?Naku, Miss, you?re too young to be using things like this. You should be in school,? he chides. ?I?m 17 and I already have two children,? giggles the girl. ?I can?t afford to buy contraceptives but I don?t want to give birth again because it?s very painful,? she says, then gestures to an adolescent boy grinning from a stack of rusted drums. ?My partner is embarrassed and doesn?t want his friends to know that I force him to use a condom now.?
Before Celdran could reply, an excited woman taps him on the arm, ?Thank you for all of these,? she smiles, holding up an assortment of condoms and pills. ?I just got married but I don?t want to get pregnant and stop working. My husband doesn?t make much so I have to help him save. This is a big help to us.?
The women Celdran comes across are aware artificial contraceptives are not allowed by the Catholic Church but they insist it is not only impossible for them to practice natural methods of birth control but also to ask help from the church to feed their growing families. ?The previous mayor of Manila stopped the health centers from giving free ligations and contraceptives,? laments Evelyn. ?Most of the husbands in our squatter community don?t care if their wives give birth yearly as long as they have sex whenever they want. They don?t involve themselves with child rearing or family planning. All these are left to the women.?
These are some of the people Celdran has learned to deal with on his tours. ?They are without means and education, but they understand that these pills and condoms prevent pregnancies and that it?s their decision. I don?t force anyone to take them,? he clarifies. ?The tourists who see what I do are happy and relieved someone is taking the initiative to address the city?s overpopulation problem. Some even make a special donation to support my humble campaign, which of course is very encouraging.?
Celdran uses his personal funds to buy the contraceptives to give away. On the average, he spends more than P15,000 a year on P30 birth control pills and P10 box of condoms.
?Believe it or not, no one has given me any problems or criticized me about any of this,? he points out. ?I take it as a good sign that I?ve somehow succeeded in raising the level of awareness about sexual responsibility in this part of the city at least.? Women?s Feature Service
In celebration of World Population Day on July 11, 2008, the Reproduction Health Advocacy Network (RHAN ), a coalition of 35 non-government and people?s organizations championing reproductive health and reproductive rights held a Family Planning Fair in coordination with the Manila City Health Office in Tondo. Not only did hundreds of women troop to the fair for free artificial contraceptives, family planning services and referrals for ligations, but men willingly underwent vasectomies.