Women’s Month has begun in the Philippines, a deeply conservative country where Catholic morality still holds sway. And in a month that celebrates the achievements and potential of Filipino women, it’s young women who now deserve special attention and concern.
First, the dismaying facts. The Philippines is the only country in Southeast Asia where teenage pregnancy is on the rise. Of the 10 million Filipino girls aged 15-19 years old, some 10 per cent (about a million) are already mothers or pregnant with their first child. By age 19, one in every five girls is pregnant or has given birth, according to the National Demographic Survey of 2016.
Speaking of adolescents in general, one in three has already had sex by age 19, with a troubling 70 per cent of these encounters taking place without protection. One in four have sex before age 18, with the highest proportion (30 per cent) of these attaining just an elementary education, and the number decreasing as education level increases.
If you think these dismaying statistics are just the result of fecklessness among the youths and possibly their families, you’d be wrong. According to health economist Dr Alex Herrin, every year the Philippines forfeits around 33 billion pesos (Bt20 billion) in lost income due to early pregnancy, equivalent to over 1 per cent of the gross domestic product in 2012.
Indeed, it is a public problem, with our economic growth hamstrung by lost income opportunities as well as a growing dependence ratio, with the children of these young parents joining the ranks of those who rely on productive adults for their basic needs. In the private sphere, young parents must cope not only with missed educational and income opportunities, but also with the demands of parenting and maintaining relationships at a time when they’re still preoccupied with finding themselves.
This is the reason the UN Population Fund has decided to focus much of its efforts in the country on addressing teenage pregnancy.
For Women’s Month, the UNFPA, along with Vice President Leni Robredo, is launching the “Babaenihan Campaign” – a play on the Filipino words for “woman” and “community cooperation” that is meant to harness, at the national and community level, multisectoral efforts “through investments in education, health and income opportunities” for young parents.
“Babaenihan” gets off the ground next Friday in Iloilo, with a radio launch, to be followed by community gatherings across the country involving young women sharing their experiences, insights and suggestions on how to best reduce the number of unwanted early pregnancies, early sexual initiation, and possibly even sexual abuse and exploitation.
There is a “hidden” aspect to the problem of early pregnancy in the country, points out Klaus Beck of UNFPA in the Philippines. There is a discrepancy, he says, between the number of babies born to young women and the number of teenage boys who are fathers. Obviously, a great number of the sexual partners of young women are older men, and one cannot discount the possibility of sexual exploitation, if not abuse, accounting for some pregnancies.
Even with our Reproductive Health law in place, and the prohibitions against certain forms of contraception lifted, young men and women still face formidable barriers to the full exercise of their sexual and reproductive health and rights. While the law calls for comprehensive sexuality education in public schools, questions remain about the quality of such education, which are at the mercy of reservations and misconceptions held by many teachers.
Then there are the barriers raised against access by young people to family planning information, counselling, commodities and services. Would young people be able to raise the matter with their parents, enough to convince them to write a note indicating consent? And what sort of attitudinal barriers would be raised by health centre personnel in front of a teenager seeking information on sex and family planning? Good luck, kiddos!