Mechai Viravaidya: The Condom King

By: Nathan Calies and Lindsey Dunlap

Mechai Viravaidya was born in Thailand to a Scottish mother and a Thai father both of whom were doctors. He is one of four children, with his younger brother, Sunya, the founder of the Pattaya International Hospital and one of his two sisters, Sumalee, was formerly a journalist in Bangkok. As of now, he is married to Thanphuying Putrie Viravaidya. Mechai also has two grandchildren, Mek and Mok, who both sponsor a village in Northeastern Thailand through the Village Development Partnership (VDP) (Activities Implemented by Mechai Viravaidya, 2011).

Mechai finished school in Australia at the Geelong Grammar School and Melbourne University before returning to Thailand to start his career with a governmental development agency. Mechai, after returning to Thailand had quickly realized the extreme change in population. The rapid growth within the population was limiting the rural development, and the countries strong social customs got in the way of tackling the real issues of family planning.

This is when Mechai decided to start the Population and Community Development Association (PDA). The PDA is one of Thailand’s largest and most successful private, non-profit, development organizations (Activities Implemented by Mechai Viravaidya, 2011). Mechai has been a huge part of Thailand’s family planning program, which has seen the most dramatic decline in fertility since the modern era (Activities Implemented by Mechai Viravaidya, 2011). He has not only played a huge role in the PDA, but also on social mobilization and community development efforts, which unfortunately has been taken for granted (Activities Implemented by Mechai Viravaidya, 2011).

Mechai has also served in the Thai government as a Senator and a member of the cabinet on four occasions and was the chief architect in building Thailand’s comprehensive national HIV/AIDS prevention policy and program (Activities Implemented by Mechai Viravaidya, 2011). In 2005, it came to the attention of the World Bank that the efforts had saved approximately 7.7 million lives throughout Thailand, and saved the government billions of dollars.

As stated above, Mechai Viravaidya has made remarkable steps towards the reduction of HIV/AIDS. He has created and implemented many different programs to help enforce his beliefs. The first major program he started, that was mentioned previously, was the Family Planning program which included non-physician services, community-based distribution of condoms and oral contraceptives, along with clinic referral services. When these services started, he was able to significantly decrease the annual population growth rate. It went from 3.2% in the 1970s to 1.2% in the mid-‘90s and now it’s at 0.7% (TIME, 2006). He was so successful, that today in Thai slang, mechai means condom. Mechai was very smart when he implemented this program because he knew that the topic was not easily talked about amongst Thai people. Since he knew this, he utilized humor and a common sense approach, which really turned heads in local communities. There were condom blowing-contest, kitsch souvenirs that promoted safe sex were handed out, and he created a restaurant named Cabbages and Condoms where condoms took the place of dinner mints. With all of these approaches, he forced the topic of sex into the open.

He also partnered up with different local governmental agencies who reached out to rural communities beyond the local governments’ ability to do so themselves. By recruiting a number of volunteers, including over 320,000 rural school teachers, using his own NGO, the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), he was able to expand his program into most rural areas in Thailand (Activities Implemented by Mechai Viravaidya, 2011). Another program Mechai handled was his HIV/AIDS Prevention program in conjunction with PDA and the Thai Government. His initiative was to raise an alarm for the possibility of a rapid growth of HIV/AIDS spreading through Thailand. He started an aggressive national campaign that promoted the use of condoms. He was so successful that in the 1990s, Thailand became the first country to drop in infection rates. This set a powerful example for the rest of the world.

This program fought the epidemic with a combination of different prevention methods, informing the public about the issue at hand, and different care projects. The prevention methods used focused on broad societal needs to get the most accurate information possible. Along with using forthright discussions that were very uncomfortable at that time since this topic was not widely talked about in Thailand, he was able to gather valuable information about HIV/AIDS. Not only was HIV/AIDS an issue for Thailand, but so was the recruiting of young women for the sex industry. Mechai helped these young women discover different alternatives to the commercial sex industry by vocational training and many different educational projects.

Another program that Mechai established was the Population and Development International or PDI. It was established in 1983 to be based in the United States with the mission “To provide the opportunities for the poor to help themselves get out of poverty” (Activities Implemented by Mechai Viravaidya, 2011).  The PDI program works with local NGOs of Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Indonesia, Philippines, and East Cambodia to create different projects. Examples of these projects are the Village Development Partnership, NGO sustainability training, community health improvement, and micro-finance (Activities Implemented by Mechai Viravaidya, 2011). The Positive Partnership Program is an incredible program that partners HIV-positive with HIV-negative people which helps promote economic livelihood and de-stigmatization of HIV/AIDS. The United Nations has recognized this program to be one of the best practices to slow the transmission of HIV/AIDS.

Along with the PDI, Mechai created the Village Development Partnership or VDP as a serious outreach to rural communities which will help eradicate poverty and improve their quality of life. This program usually stays within the communities being helped. It is a partnership between the villagers and a sponsoring company or organization. Now, the program is very successful and sustainable and helps empower the villagers to take responsibilities and provide everyone with opportunities by encouraging them to work together. The VDP focuses on five main areas: community empowerment, economic development, environment, health, and education (Activities Implemented by Mechai Viravaidya, 2011). The program starts with the villagers holding meetings to discuss the different needs of the community and then to establish a plan. The committee must be comprised of both sexes, 50% males and 50% females and then have all age groups too, youth, middle-aged, and the elderly.

Mechai has started many other programs too. For example, he created The Mechai Pattana School which offers free, private education to rural children in the Buriram province located in Northeastern Thailand. Another program was The Green Village Toy Library. This was launched in 2009 to focus on the youth. The library encompasses four different concepts: philanthropy, leadership, community service and participation, and environmental stewardship (Activities Implemented by Mechai Viravaidya, 2011). So as one can see, Mechai Viravaidya is a man who has changed Thailand for all ages. He has made a huge impact on reducing the annual population growth rates, reducing HIV/AIDS, promoted community development, and created schools for students in need.

For his efforts in various development endeavors, Mechai Viravaidya has been acclaimed with numerous awards, recognition, and honorary doctoral degrees as well as the United Nations Gold Peace Medal (1981), the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service (1994), one of Asia week’s “20 Great Asians” (1995), the United Nations Population Award (1997), and one of TIME Magazine’s “Asian Heroes” (2006). Mechai and PDA have recently been the recipient of the Bill and Melinda Gates Award for Global Health in 2007, the Skoll Awardees for Social Entrepreneurship in 2008, and the Prince Mahidol Award for Public Health in 2009 (Activities implemented my Mechai Viravaidya).

References

Activities Implemented by Mechai Viravaidya. (n.d.). The Mechai Viravaidya foundation. Retrieved April 19, 2011, from http://www.mechaifoundation.org/mechai_programs.asp

Interview with Mechai Viravaidya – CNN.com. (n.d.). CNN.com International – Breaking, World, Business, Sports, Entertainment and Video News. Retrieved April 26, 2011, from http://edition.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/asiapcf/07/22/talkasia.viravaidya/index.html

Mechai Viravaidya | Profile on TED.com. (n.d.). TED: Ideas worth spreading. Retrieved April 26, 2011, from http://www.ted.com/speakers/mechai_viravaidya.html

Rx for Survival . Global Health Champions . Mechai Viravaidya | PBS. (n.d.). PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved April 26, 2011, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/rxforsurvival/series/champions/mechai_viravaidya.html

TIME Magazine | 60 Years of Asian Heroes: Mechai Viravaidya. Breaking News, Analysis, Politics, Blogs, News Photos, Video, Tech Reviews – TIME.com. Retrieved April 21, 2011, from http://www.time.com/time/asia/2006/heroes/in_viravaidya.html

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