Christine Bixiones is a Development Associate at PAI.
Mexico City, with its bustling streets, vibrant public art, and mixture of progress and need turned out to be an excellent location for an educational “tour” of a society’s public health challenges and success stories. Population Action International’s Friends’ Study Tour to Mexico gave its participants the opportunity to speak with passionate Mexican women leaders about their work to advance women’s status and health in a conservative “machista” culture and to see first-hand what these amazing leaders have accomplished and what challenges lie ahead.
Our group was particularly impressed with a dynamic group of youth
leaders who work as community health promoters with the organization Mexfam
(the Mexican Foundation for Family Planning). At Mexfam clinics,
sexual and reproductive health services are offered at a subsidized
cost and are targeted to youth; outreach activities also reach youth in
their schools and neighborhoods.
On day two of the Study Tour, participants gathered in one of Mexfam’s
clinics to hear eight youth speak to us about how through drama
productions they educate their peers about using contraceptives in
order to prevent unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted
infections. This type of education is extremely important in a country
where unmet need for family planning among sexually active teenage
girls remains high and has actually increased in the past ten years
(from 27 percent in 1997 to 36 percent in 2006.)
After the presentation, our group went to a high school where we saw a
Mexfam health promoter in action, educating teenage girls about the
array of contraceptive options available to them. The promoter’s candor
with the subject and knowledge were impressive — and the hands-on
condom use demonstration made me admire how comfortable the youth were
with the subject, despite living in a country strongly influenced by
We left the sex education presentation thinking not only that there
should be Mexfam clinics and programs in every municipality in Mexico,
but that this was an excellent example of Mexico’s progress. We also
noted that while USAID assistance had
played a key role in building many of Mexfam’s clinics in the 1970′s,
it no longer provides family planning and population assistance to
Mexico since it was “graduated” in 1999. Of course, even if the United
States still provided family planning assistance to Mexico, the
destructive Global Gag Rule would prohibit any of that funding from going to Mexfam.
Our next visit was a more sobering view of sexual and reproductive
health and rights in Mexico. PAI’s newest subgrantee in its
International Advocacy program, Salud Integral para la Mujer, SIPAM
(Comprehensive Health for Women), invited us to a lunch at their
“campus” and the opportunity to meet the beneficiaries of their program
– women living with HIV/AIDS.
One courageous woman told us how she learned that she was HIV-positive
only after her husband, who had never been diagnosed with the virus,
died. She then spent a year living with the virus alone — she told no
one and stopped allowing her grandchildren to sleep in her bed with her
out of fear that she would give them the virus. The public clinic where
she had been diagnosed offered her little education or counseling.
Luckily, she found a SIPAM pamphlet and made her way to this community
of women who gave her accurate information and empowered her to help
other women living with the disease.
Unfortunately, today, only her daughters know that she is HIV-positive
– like most people living with HIV in Mexico, she keeps her status a
secret from family, friends and neighbors, fearing that if they find
out she is HIV-positive, they will discriminate against her. Lack of
accurate knowledge about HIV/AIDS pervades society in Mexico, much like
it did in the United States when HIV was first being diagnosed.
While there are many success stories in Mexico of what a committed
government and civil society can achieve, you don’t have to look very
far to find areas where further assistance from outside donors or
Mexican philanthropists could bring greater improvement to the lives of
Mexicans. PAI advocates for improved reproductive health and family
planning policies; yet in a country like Mexico, where U.S. family
planning assistance has ended, it is all the more important to support
the advocacy efforts of small organizations like SIPAM — as well as
PAI’s other subgrantee in Mexico, Equidad de Género: Ciudadanía, Trabajo, y Familia (Gender
Equity: Citizenship, Work, and Family) — in order to build upon past
progress and to continue to see women’s lives improve well into the
For information about PAI Friends’ Study Tours to Africa in 2009,
please contact Christine Bixiones at cbixiones(AT)popact(DOT)org.