How the Philippines is Tackling Poverty By Addressing Its High Teenage Pregnancy Rates

How the Philippines is Tackling Poverty By Addressing Its High Teenage Pregnancy Rates

Teenage pregnancy is a worldwide issue, but in the Philippines, it is viewed as a national social emergency. According to the United Nations Population Fund the Philippines has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates among the ASEAN member states. An average of 64,000 teenage girls, age 18 and below, give birth every year with a seven percent increase in childbirth for very young adolescents aged 10 to 14 years old recorded in 2019.

Last year, the agency counted 70,755 teen pregnancies. By the end of 2021, it is projected to reach somewhere between 133,000 and 200,000, alarming figures considering one in five Filipinos still live below the poverty line.

In the 2020 Social Weather Stations survey, more than half of Filipino respondents – 59% – acknowledge that teenage pregnancy is a key issue facing women. Young expectant mothers face many risks – maternal mortality, premature birth, stillbirth, and other health complications. Their physical bodies are not yet ready to carry a child in the womb. Early pregnancy and motherhood also affect a woman’s social status and mental health; young moms face stigma, judgement, and rejection by family members, those within their friendship circles and the community at large.

In addition, young mothers also experience more violence in their relationships and as a consequence, suffer from depression, anxiety, fatigue, and feelings of worthlessness.

Teenage pregnancy also has economic implications. Its immediate effect is felt by their respective households, as parents and relatives shoulder the additional financial obligations of the young mother and her child. And as pregnant students drop out of school and are unable to finish their studies, they have a reduced capacity to earn money.

“The discounted lifetime wage earnings foregone by a cohort of teenage women 18-19 years resulting from early childbearing is estimated on the average at P33 billion,” said Population and Development Undersecretary Juan Antonio Perez III. In US dollars, that’s a little over $684 million.

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A mum and her child in the Philippines. Photo: Rainier Ridao.

Not only does teen pregnancy represent a big blow to the economy of a developing country, it also traps young women in a cycle of poverty that’s already difficult to get out of.

The teen pregnancy crisis in the Philippines

Several factors contribute to the escalating issue of teen pregnancy in the Philippines. For one, the society is predominantly Catholic and as such, its people hold conservative values. Premarital sex, especially among minors, is frowned upon. Teens who engage in such acts face social stigma and as a result, don’t have access to proper birth control measures and information about family planning. As one NGO worker puts it, “A lot of the existing education in the Philippines is abstinence only, and this contributes to teenage pregnancy.”

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Then there’s the Roman Catholic Church, a religious organization that still wields significant power and influence in the island nation and former Spanish colony. As a result of the Church’s long opposition to birth control, it took 14 years for the Reproductive Health Law to be implemented in the country, a law that guarantees universal and free access to modern contraceptives for citizens. The law also mandates reproductive health education in public schools. The measures were passed in 2012 but were suspended by the Supreme Court, following objections from religious groups.

A key part of his government’s anti-poverty program, in 2017 President Rodrigo Duterte signed an executive order accelerating the law’s implementation and pushing for the distribution of free contraception and provision of reproductive health services – a stance that is still opposed by religious groups. To this day, the Catcholic Church’s influence on state matters continue to hinder the proper implementation of the country’s reproductive health policies.

A Filipino jeepney driver displays rosary beads in his vehicle. Photo: Rainier Ridao.

Further exacerbating the teenage pregnancy problem are the government’s missed opportunities in providing family planning counseling and overcoming “barriers to the delivery of effective contraceptive methods”. It wasn’t until this school year 2021-2022 that sex education has finally been included in public school curriculum.

And then there is the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, with experts agreeing that lockdowns have made young girls more vulnerable to early pregnancy as they are removed from the “protective physical setting of the school environment.” The pandemic, along with the gaps in the implementation of the Reproductive Health law, are causing a teenage baby boom.

Addressing the teen pregnancy crisis

The Filipino government will be taking a “whole-of-government approach” together with the local government units, concerned government agencies, development organisations, and the private sector to solve the problem of teenage pregnancy, says Population and Development Undersecretary Juan Antonio Perez III. Addressing teen pregnancy is central to the government’s poverty reduction program.

In another positive step, the Department of Education is being urged to improve its curriculum in favor of lessons that will enhance students’ knowledge about their own body, the consequences of sex and how to protect themselves against those looking to violate them.

Adolescent Health and Development classes and “Youth for You” activities have also been rolled out; initiatives that aim to raise awareness among teenagers, and particularly out-of-school youths, about sex education and the personal, financial and future consequences of pregnancy. The Commission on Population and Development (PopCom) and local government officials are also pushing for stronger parental engagement; asking parents to monitor and guide their children so that they won’t engage in activities that would lead to teenage pregnancy and have to drop out of school.

Teenage moms will also be included in the country’s social protection program so that they can receive financial aid and medical assistance, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

PopCom, together with the Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD), and relevant government agencies and NGOs, have also launched the No More Children Having Children campaign pressuring Congress to pass the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Act and full implementation of the Reproductive Health Law, as well as introducing legislative bills that will ensure adolescent mothers and fathers access reproductive health services including modern family planning methods, comprehensive sex education, health facilities, and social protection.

The rising numbers of teenage pregnancies should serve as a wake-up call to the Philippine government. Children shouldn’t be having children. The key to eliminating the teenage pregnancy crisis in the Philippines is in strengthening sex education, ensuring teens have access to social services and are provided education that empowers them to make informed choices and responsible decisions.

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Cover image via GOLFX.

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