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A picture of Dean in the Cook Islands Condom Car


Dean and the Cook Islands Condom Car

Dean Tangata of the Cook Islands Family Welfare Association says sex education and contraception access is changing the behaviours and attitudes of young people.

On the island of Rarotonga, the main island of the Cook Islands in the South Pacific, a little white van makes its rounds on the palm-tree lined circular road. The van, run by the Cook Islands Family Welfare Association (CIFWA), stops off at condom distribution points along the way, refilling the condom stock. 

Dean Tangata, a 26-year-old humanitarian focal point for CIFWA and a registered nurse, is behind the wheel. 

"Our condom dispensers get emptied so quickly!” said Dean. “We refill them twice a week.”  

On Rarotonga, the locals refer to a system called ‘coconut wireless’ - a local phrase meaning to communicate quickly by word-of-mouth. This means that discretion is key to encourage people to practise safe sex and use condoms. 

According to the Cook Islands Ministry of Health 2014, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are common in the Cook Islands. A study conducted in 2006 showed a 22% prevalence rate of chlamydia; 46% of these cases were in people between the ages of 15 and 29 years. After a robust intervention campaign, a repeat survey in 2012 showed a 50% decrease in prevalence.

This is why CIFWA instigated a condom dispenser system, placing handmade dispensers (that an industrious staff member made from cutting holes in piping) inside bathrooms in restaurants around the island.

“We’re the ‘sex people’ - the ‘sex workers’ who roll up in our condom car,” says Dean, smiling.

Dean Tatanga, 26, has been involved with CIFWA since he was 15

“I loved the idea that there was this place with more answers”

Dean is a man of many (fabulous) hats. He is also active in the CIFWA Youth Peer (CYP) group and he sits on the board of the leading LGBTI+ advocacy group in the country, Pride Cook Islands, which is currently fighting to decriminalise homosexuality in the Islands. Dean was also the IPPF Youth Representative for the Cook Islands from 2014 – 2016. When he’s not working in sexual and reproductive health and rights, he teaches island-style Zumba classes to local women in the community. 

Dean has a long history with CIFWA. He joined as a youth volunteer when he was 15 after the organization visited his school. 

“I loved what they were talking about,” he recalls. “They were talking about HIV and AIDS, and it piqued my interest immediately. There was also my sexuality as well. I have never questioned my sexuality, ever. I knew who I was, but I loved the idea that there was this place with more answers.”

Dean says CIFWA served as a safe space, where he was able to find answers to his many questions about sexual and reproductive health.

Dean Tatanga

Dean and his colleague Lailani Vano fill the condom distribution points

Dean later became a peer-to-peer educator and a youth volunteer with CIFWA. He recognised that it is one thing to educate young people about sexuality matters, but it is another to provide the contraception they need to stay safe. That’s why his work driving the condom bus and filling the condom distribution points is so important in helping to address education and access needs on the Cook Islands. 

After some time as a volunteer with CIFWA, Dean realised he wanted to expand his technical knowledge around sexual and reproductive health, so he trained to be a nurse.

“I love helping people, that is why I became a nurse. Through volunteering I was able to help other young people around me. I also became the go-to person for my friends. They would say ‘hey this is itching’ or ‘I'm late on my period!’”

Dean says he has always been a straightforward person: “I guess people like that as they keep coming back! I've always had an open-minded personality and had a lot of different friendship groups.”

Dean Tatanga, 26 years old


Youth Representation and Change in the Cook Islands  

Dean takes great pride in his work at CIFWA. One of the activities he mentions is ‘MythBusters’, where they ask young people what they have heard about sexual and reproductive health, so that they can debunk harmful myths and spread accurate information.

When asked what some of the most common myths are, Dean said: “You go blind if you masturbate too much. If you touch someone with an STI you get one. If you don’t have a condom, you can use gladwrap. If you have sex standing up, you can’t get pregnant. Sometimes it's horrifying.” 

But Dean says that addressing these myths, and promoting safe and open dialogue about sexual and reproductive health is crucial to create meaningful change.