CIBER Symposium features Thailand’s “Condom King”
Students, faculty and staff at the Robert H. School of Business and the University
of Maryland, College Park, gathered in Frank Auditorium of Van Munching Hall to
listen to Mechai Viravaidya, Thailand’s “Condom King,” talk about the eradication
of poverty in his country.
The event took place on Monday, Sept. 13, 2010 and was sponsored by the Center
for International Business Education and Research (CIBER). Cosponsors of the event
included the Center for Social Value Creation, the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship,
College Park Scholars, the Office of Global Programs, Quality Enhancement Systems
and Teams (QUEST), and the Smith Undergraduate Student Association (SUSA) as part
of SUSA Business Week.
Viravaidya spoke to the large crowd about helping the Thai people and their country
to reduce the births per family, the deaths from HIV/AIDS and the poverty in the
country. In 1974, he explained, Thai families had on average seven children per
family and the population was growing at a rate of 3.5 percent.
“We would have no future if the population rate stayed that high,” he said. So
he decided to do something about it, and began to spread the knowledge of safe-sex
practices, explaining to people how to use and get condoms, how to use and get birth
control, and the benefits of a vasectomy.
“In Thailand, there was only one doctor for 110,000 people, so we started asking
the nurses and midwives to give out the pill and condoms – which women were happy
to receive from women instead of the male doctor,” Viravaidya said. “When that wasn’t
reaching enough people, we went to the people, the average people and the normal
people. Wherever there were people, contraceptives were there. You could go to the
market and buy fish, crabs and contraceptives.”
Viravaidya got shop owners to have condoms available, posting large yellow signs
telling people to use them as a method of contraception. Viravaidya even went to
primary schools to educate teachers and their young students on safe sex.
“We trained school teachers to use a new alphabet: ‘B’ for birth, ‘C’ for condom,
‘I’ for IUD, ‘V’ for vasectomy, and so on. We did not ask permission of the Ministry
of Education because they would have said ‘No.’ That is when I discovered it is
better to ask forgiveness than permission,” he said.
Since sex was a taboo subject, Viravaidya used humor to make it easier to talk
about. He held condom blowing contests and sold funny condom-related gifts in his
restaurant, Cabbages and Condoms.
“Humor is very important to us. You have to use it to make people more comfortable,”
Viravaidya explained. “At our restaurant, we have a basket that says, sorry we are
out of breath mints, please take a condom instead,” he told the audience.
As his mission became popular throughout the country, another problem came to
Thailand: HIV/AIDS. So, Viravaidya expanded his mission of reducing births to include
reducing deaths in his country as well. He started explaining to people that using
condoms can prevent the transfer of HIV/AIDS as well prevent pregnancy, recruiting
university students to teach the younger Thai children about the disease.
During the time spent on educating the Thai people on how to lead safer and healthier
lives, Viravaidya also helped them educate themselves on business strategy, so they
could get out of poverty.
“We had a micro-credit program focused on Thai women. It was called the ‘Non-pregnancy
Agriculture Program’ and the women could only participate if they weren’t pregnant.
If they were pregnant they were told to stay home and take care of their pregnancy
so their child could be healthy. Women who stayed in the program for years without
becoming pregnant were rewarded, and eventually the women understood that if they
aren’t pregnant, they make a lot of money – and that was the point. Money talks,”
In 2000, 26 years after Viravaidya began his mission, the births per Thai family
were reduced to 1.5 children per family, a .5 percent population growth rate. In
addition, the spread of HIV/AIDS was reduced by about 90 percent. His programs were
so successful in Thailand, that “mechai” now means “condom.”
“You have to find every possible way to reach a group of people whose attitude
and behavior you want to change, otherwise you won’t be successful,” Viravaidya
Jessica Bauer, Writer and Editor, Office of Marketing Communications