Thailand’s Condom King – A Leader in Health, Development, and Education

Mechai Viravaidya, known as Thailand’s “Condom King,” has committed his life to improving family planning services and reducing poverty throughout Southeast Asia. He has worked to build community-based sexual and reproductive health services, rural education and poverty alleviation programs, and HIV/AIDS preventive care for over 45 years.

As the founder and chair of the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), Viravaidya is a leader in localized development in Thailand and all of Southeast Asia. We asked the Condom King about his approach to family planning and community development, its impact in Thailand, and how we can use his learnings to achieve universal health coverage (UHC).

Learn more below.

How have you worked to transform health, development, and education in Thailand? 

Beginning in 1974, my colleagues and I have been on a five-journey endeavor to make Thailand a better, healthier place.

  1. Reduce births by improving access to family planning services.
  2. Reduce deaths from HIV/AIDS through HIV health system strengthening and prevention.
  3. Reduce our financial dependence on donors and advance locally-rooted social enterprises.
  4. Reduce poverty by partnering urban companies with rural villages.
  5. Improve access to education by building lifelong learning centers that act as social and economic hubs for surrounding communities.

To accomplish this, we rely on our guiding principles to take no as a question, to be innovative, to empower our target audience, and to ensure that everything we do is sustainable.

Tell us about the Bamboo School and how it informs your work moving forward.

By building the Bamboo School, a secondary boarding school for students from Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, we consolidated the most successful and significant elements of our five journeys. To encourage community engagement and reduce poverty, our students and their families pay their school fees by contributing 800 hours of service and planting 800 trees.

The students are heavily involved in the daily planning and future direction of the school. The Student Government helps to support school budgeting, all purchases, the interview and selection of incoming students and teachers, and overall school activities. As part of our five journeys, we make sure to prioritize sexual and reproductive health education, business skills, and food security strategies to set our students and their families up for success.   

I am grateful for the recognition we have gotten since starting the Bamboo School. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said that “The Mechai Bamboo School is one of the world’s most innovative schools. The UNFPA recognizes the work and philosophy of the Bamboo School in addressing inequalities in all contexts: gender, socioeconomic, access to health and public goods, and so on – that all human beings, in particular women and girls, have an equal chance at fulfilling their potential.”

My only regret is that I did not start the Bamboo School sooner.

How has your impact spread beyond the students and communities of the Bamboo School?

Schools throughout Thailand have implemented the Bamboo School’s revolutionary approach to education. Hundreds of rural schools heard about our community-based learning curriculum and soon after, asked us to help them implement it in their own schools.

We helped to introduce a more dynamic and relevant approach to education by including programs such as a poverty eradication farm, business skill classes, and sex education. We also helped small schools establish microcredit savings and loan funds and helped assist them in becoming community lifelong learning centers.

We have been fortunate to acquire some funding for this work, which we call the Partnership School Project, in 204 schools. There are several hundred rural government schools also seeking our support and we have recently started helping Cambodian schools on the Thai border to start the Partnership School Project.

The Thai Senate Standing Committee on Poverty Eradication and Inequality Reduction has given its strong support for widespread expansion of our work and stressed that this is how we can reform the Thai education system. 

What does localized development mean to you and what will it take to achieve UHC?

In rural settings, community members must play a prominent role in improving the quality of their lives and communities. For many years, we facilitated the Village Development Partnership where we get support and participation from companies to work with poor village communities. In all such projects, a gender balanced village development committee is elected to determine the social and business training requirements to accompany a microcredit savings and loan fund called the School and Village Development Fund.

More than 200 of these so-called banks have been established and loans are made available to student’s parents and community members.

To achieve UHC, schools must play an important role in providing health education and services in their communities. When community members are aware of strategies to improve access to healthcare, they are better equipped to advocate for their health and the government is more likely to allocate resources to sustain community-level health systems.

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This article is a part of PSI’s ICFP 2022 Impact Magazine. Explore the magazine here.

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