Philippine Daily Inquirer

Talking about teen sex

- RINA JIMENEZ-DAVID

Women’s Month has begun in the Philippine­s. And in a month addressing the many issues and problems, as well as celebratin­g 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 percent (about a million) are already mothers or pregnant with their first child. By age 19, one in every five girls (20 percent) is or will soon be a mother, according to the 2013 National Demographi­c and Health Survey, the latest version (2016) of which came out this week.

Speaking of adolescent­s overall, one in three would already have had early sex, with 70 percent of these encounters taking place without protection. One in four begins having sex before age 18, with the highest proportion (30 percent) experience­d by those with just an elementary education, and the number decreasing as education increases.

If you think these dismaying statistics are just the problem of these feckless youth, their children and possibly their families, you’d be wrong. According to health economist Dr. Alex Herrin, every year the Philippine­s forfeits around P33 billion in lost income due to early pregnancy, equivalent to over 1 percent 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.

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This is the reason the UN Population Fund, said its Philippine resident representa­tive Klaus Beck, has decided to focus much of its efforts in the country on addressing teenage pregnancy.

For Women’s Month, the UNFPA, along with the Office of 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 on March 9 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.

———— Beck points out that there is a “hidden” aspect to the problem of early pregnancy in the country. There is a discrepanc­y, he says, between the number of babies born to young women and the number of babies fathered by teenage boys. 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 the RH 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 available education, especially given the reservatio­ns and misconcept­ions of many teachers.

Then there are the barriers raised against access by young people to family planning informatio­n, counseling, 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 center personnel in front of a teener seeking informatio­n on sex and family planning? Good luck, kiddos!

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