The Philippines has long grappled with addressing teenage pregnancy, whether by expanding education on reproductive health or by providing better access to birth control options. Yet, as a Social Weather Stations survey found last November, the issue remains the “most important problem of women today.”
For nine consecutive years, the country has reported a rise in cases of teenage pregnancy, the Commission on Population and Development (PopCom) said last February, stressing the gravity of the situation. Births among girls 15 years old and below increased by seven percent in 2019 compared to 2018, while the Philippine Statistics Authority recorded live births from two 10-year-old mothers, raising concerns among local government units to step up their reproductive health efforts.
Legislations fall short
Signed into law in December 2012, the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health (RPRH) Law grants Filipinos universal access to medically safe, non-abortifacient, quality contraceptives that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Citizens are also entitled to free health care, services, and supplies provided by government organizations.
Department of Health Undersecretary and Executive Director of PopCom Juan Antonio Perez III believes that the law has improved reproductive health services for women, monitoring violence against women and children, and addressing cases of HIV.
Where the law falls short, however, is in protecting minors.
In the original draft of the RPRH Law, minors would have been given access to family planning services if they were sexually active, suffered a miscarriage, or were currently pregnant. “However, in 2014, the Supreme Court said, ‘No, you have to get the consent of your parents before you get to use family planning services, or you can buy, probably, in the pharmacy,’” Perez recalls.
The effects were immediate. He argues, “With the reduction of availability of family planning, the teen pregnancy among minors really went up to its highest peak—66,000 in 2016 and 2015. That was the highest.”
This impacts educational opportunities for teenage mothers Perez warns. “We have seen that the most at-risk teenagers are those who don’t complete high school. If you don’t complete high school, you will have a poorer chance of getting a good job and you are prone to having a second child.” This may drive some to poverty due to a limited capacity to support themselves.
Perez also says that poor nutrition is a factor, citing a study that showed growth of women in the Philippines was stunted over the past century. “We believe that stunting is linked to [the] situation of poverty that so many teenage mothers and young mothers are in,” he adds.
To address this gap in access for minors, Sen. Risa Hontiveros sponsored the Prevention of Adolescent Pregnancy Act, which had “great progress with the Senate and previous Congress,” Perez describes. However, the bill found it difficult to gain traction when it was refiled in the current Congress as it was challenged by Senate President Vicente Sotto III, who claimed it was unconstitutional for encouraging abortion, which is illegal in the Philippines
“We hope that the questions of Sen. Sotto and other congressmen can be overcome over time. That’s why we’re helping Congress to understand this,” he expresses.
The challenge of religion
The Catholic Church has long been against providing universal access to contraceptives, moreso after the signing of the RPRH Law. However, this does not mean that they are against family planning altogether. Rather, the question lies in the method, as religious groups instead advocate for natural family planning methods.
“The Philippine Constitution protects certain values, e.g., the family unit and the life of an unborn child, which align with Roman Catholic views,” says Dr. Christianne Collantes, an associate professor from the Political Science Department, with regards to the relationship between Church and state. “This has made conversations about family planning, sex contraceptives, and teenage pregnancy quite heated at the legislative level.”
Despite these differences in approach, Perez clarifies that they do work with the Church in promoting family planning. “We worked with them in some areas because the Church wants us to support natural family planning, and we do support it. We give them resources to implement it,” he adds.
However, Perez points out that there is still the issue of couples avoiding family planning, and he stressed that the Church needs the full cooperation of husband and wife in order to successfully utilize their resources.
PopCom has also worked with religious leaders in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), specifically Darul Ifta, the Islamic advisory council. Perez says that the council issued a fatwa on reproductive health back in 2019. From there, PopCom had developed an educational module on Comprehensive Gender and Health Education for Youth (CGHEY), which was approved by BARMM last February 24.
Perez credits Indonesia for working closely with them in understanding how family planning, comprehensive sexuality education, and adolescent health are implemented in their country, allowing them to craft a program without diminishing or disregarding the culture in Muslim Mindanao.
Delayed education programs
Perez adds that the RPRH Law also mandates the Department of Education (DepEd) to adopt a comprehensive sexuality education program, but finalizing the curriculum took longer than expected and ultimately delayed the program for years. It was only in October last year that DepEd began implementing these modules into the curriculum.
“These are going to be integrated into subjects like science, health, [and] araling panlipunan. Even in Kinder, there will be some form of, let’s say, making very young children aware of the sanctity of their bodies,” Perez expounds.
The program has been implemented in Region I (Ilocos), Region VII (Cebu), and Region XI (Davao) for the past four months, while other regions can adopt the program provided that it is approved by their regional offices.
Last February 7, it was announced that a social protection program by PopCom, the Department of Social Welfare and Development, and other government agencies was under the works. Perez shares that the adopted framework will include a social protection floor that provides interventions in education, health, training, and capacity building related to teenage pregnancy.
“We hope to launch the program by the second half of the year, even as a soft launch. And we will most definitely put up a budget for 2022 so that it really gets implemented nationwide,” he says.