Ignorant budgets, outdated data and prioritised pigeons: these are the recent government developments (or lack thereof) that are quickly proving it does not care about sexual health.
And as a country that proudly maintains a complete blanket ban on abortion, you’d assume that national leaders would at least invest some time and money in improving the sexual health system that does not in any way reflect modern society.
But the government seems to be indifferent to the astronomical rates of teen pregnancies, unwanted pregnancies and STDs that Malta harbours.
You see, in addition to the questionable international titles that our country holds, Malta forms one of the top ten developed countries with the highest STD rates. It is also the country with the highest teen pregnancy rates in Southern Europe.
But what else would you expect from a country with a sexual health education system that still promotes abstinence as one of its guiding principles?
Or a country that prioritises the use of free contraception to tackle the annoying bowel movements of pigeons when it is yet to do the same for women and men in Malta?
The government has consistently put sexual health concerns on the back burner, and this is how:
1. Sexual Health Policy
The sexual health policy that was supposed to be announced in March of this year is being once again redrafted because the research that it was based on was found to be around 12 years old, Health Minister Chris Fearne said.
Therefore, researchers must restart by carrying out a new study to understand the sexual practices of people nowadays.
The fact that this wasn’t done back when the new policy was announced implies that they haven’t actually looked into it until now – seven months after the supposed due date.
This isn’t the first time that this sexual health policy date was pushed back.
The policy was initially intended to be announced back in 2020 but once again, sexual health was put at the bottom of the list – this time, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As it stands, Malta is following the sexual health policy of 2010 and nothing has been updated to reflect the significant legal and social changes that have occurred since this time.
A freshly updated sexual health policy is integral to the well-being of a huge majority of people living in Malta and Gożo.
Such a policy would include improvements in education, contraception accessibility and widespread sexual health advocation in which the country is sorely lacking.
The consequences of our current situation are seen in national statistics that show that only 2% of the population visited Mater Dei’s Genitourinary (GU) clinic in 2019 to get tested for STDs.
Since then, the rates of infection have consistently climbed.
In fact, earlier this year, the GU clinic warned that there has been a worrying rise in STIs in Malta among men who reported to have attended group sex parties.
Meanwhile, preventable STDs are also on the increase, with five people contracting HIV every month and nearly 800 people found with HPV in 2019.
A sexual health policy will also tackle medication shortages like that of HIV in 2020. There was a large stock shortage that left people suffering from the virus without treatment.
2. The 2022 Budget
The 2022 budget has recently been published with several initiatives and schemes aimed to improve the quality of life of Maltese and Gożitan citizens, and many of them do exactly that.
However, a crucial aspect was once again forgotten and that’s, you guessed it – sexual health.
Free medication was in fact included in the government’s budget, but contraceptive medication did not make the cut.
Besides the obvious uses of contraception, hormonal methods are often treated as medication to relieve the symptoms of a large number of medical conditions that women and womb bearers suffer from.
PCOS – experienced by one in 10 women, endometriosis – experienced by 10% of women, PMS – experienced by three in four women, and PMDD – experienced by one in 20 women, are four prime examples.
Bonus: hormonal contraceptives are also used to treat menstrual irregularities that affect 9-25% of persons with uterus’.
3. Contraceptives for pigeons
This move that wants to administer free contraceptives to pigeons – a famously disliked bird – over actual people is arguably the development that best exemplifies the lack of fucks that the government gives for sexual health.
I fully understand the nuisance that this bird can be, but if you were to choose between getting shat on by a pigeon or getting pregnant in a country that has a complete blanket ban on abortion, I think that we’d all collectively choose the former.
A major contributor to unwanted pregnancies is the unaffordable and inaccessible contraceptives that are promoted as luxuries rather than medical necessities.
So why are contraceptives still not subsidised?
4. Sexual Health Education
The Guidelines on Sexuality and Relationships Education in Maltese Schools includes one of its primary principles to be “abstinence and postponement of sexual activity and sexual intercourse for young persons”.
This is unrealistic, ineffective and extremely damaging as you can tell from the aforementioned statistics.
Youths need proper education that will teach them adequate protection from STDs and pregnancies not to be scared by pathetic inaccurate videos preached by under-qualified and biased teachers.
They also need to be taught more about consent, respect and communication because sexual health isn’t just about preventing pregnancies and STDs.
It’s about understanding your own body and needs along with those of your sexual partner/s.
Sexual health education also goes hand in hand with advocacy, students should be advised on where to go when they experience abnormalities, like this, more than 2% of the population will use the services that they have access to.
However, this service is still not enough.
Mater Dei’s GU clinic is the only government-sponsored way to test for sexual diseases, it is currently understaffed and under-resourced with a handful of staff catering for a population of 400,000, despite ministerial pledges to double its headcount last year.
And this is why Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne announced that, sometime soon, more sexual health services will be provided in clinics across the country.
A key phrase in that sentence is “sometime soon”. There was no date mentioned and no investment plans spoken of.
Promises for reform without any concrete dates or plans are completely empty. They are there to silence the complaints but not to improve our dire health system. This is how little the government cares.
If the government isn’t going to give us adequate sexual health policies that include free or subsidised contraception and actual education, then they might as well just legalise or at least decriminalise abortion because without proper policies, unwanted pregnancies will continue to run rampant. Not to mention, the devastating impact it can have on people’s sexual health.
And the only people that will be seriously affected by this will be those in vulnerable situations who can’t afford to travel for an abortion or get the medication they desperately need, which often faces shortages.
So please, instead of investing in a €20 million race track or another unnecessary property, invest in the future and protection of Malta’s sexual health.
What sexual health policies do you think should be implemented?