Rising teenage pregnancy in the Philippines is now a national social emergency. The 2017 National Demographic and Health Survey showed that one out of 10 women between the ages 15 and 19 was childbearing. Similarly, 200,000 teenage girls in the Philippines give birth every year.
This essay explores an alternative perspective at examining and maneuvering around the current constraints on minors’ access to contraceptives.
The lack of access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) commodities is a contributing factor to the teenage pregnancy problem. Minors can only avail themselves of these commodities upon presenting the written consent of their parents or guardians. Hence, as different stakeholders work on the long and arduous process of amending this existing provision of the Reproductive Health (RH) law, in the interim, highlighting the responsibility of parents and legal guardians to ensure the access of minors to SRH services and commodities serves as an alternative path to increasing the protection of teenagers from unplanned pregnancies.
Not only is there lack of access to reproductive health services and information, violence, and abuse and the persisting negative social norms towards young people’s sexuality contribute significantly to teenage pregnancy.
The lack of access stems from the non-implementation of comprehensive sexuality education. Similarly, a comprehensive communications plan for the RH law is missing. Further, adolescent-friendly spaces in local health units to assure the confidentiality and privacy of young people are wanting.
The result is that young people get their sexual and reproductive health information from informal and inaccurate sources, which in turn contribute to the cycle of misinformation.
Unfortunately, the RH law prevents young people from having complete access to reproductive health commodities and services. The RH law requires written consent from a parent or a guardian before minors can access modern forms of reproductive health commodities.
Thus, adolescents have the largest unmet needs. Teens are left with abstinence and the “pull-out” method as the only options that they can choose and practice. Both are the least effective in preventing unplanned pregnancies.
Violence and abuse also contribute to the rising incidence of teen pregnancy. The age of consent in the Philippines is one of the lowest in the world. The current age of consent is 12 years old. A low age of consent means that adolescents are more vulnerable to sexual abuse.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), adults may lure young adolescents into sexual activity in exchange for goods and favors. Those from disadvantaged settings and poor backgrounds, particularly, at risk of unwanted or early pregnancy.
The law’s barrier is hinged on the prevailing beliefs and attitude on young people’s sexuality and agency that discussing sexual and reproductive rights to young people would encourage them to engage in risky behaviors. Also, young people who engage in pre-marital sex are deemed immoral.
There is a perception that parents should decide on the family planning of young people. There is also a belief that only health workers can initiate discussion on sexuality. However, the biased attitudes and behaviors of service providers towards teen clients deter young people from approaching them.
Nevertheless, women’s rights organizations, other civil society groups and stakeholders are addressing the lack of access to information and the transformation of the existing social norms. The problem of access to contraceptives is the main bottleneck, especially the provision on parental consent.
Amending the RH law, specifically the clause on the mandatory written parental or legal guardian consent, is the main reform to remove the bottleneck on young people’s access to SRH services and commodities.
This is a long-term agenda, but its feasibility at present is remote. With the legislators being fixated on the 2022 national elections, the reform advocates have a short and narrow timeframe for legislative reform.
That said, the best possible outcome of the advocacy is directed towards efforts to incorporate the prevention of teen pregnancy in the electoral agenda. This initiative will also directly challenge the existing norms that govern young people’s sexuality and agency over their bodies — a reform battle that might be reminiscent of the long and arduous journey of the RH law.
So, what can be done given the current circumstances, including the hard-wired beliefs and attitudes on young people’s sexuality? What can serve as a bridge between the formal barriers and the existing social norms?
In the interim, highlighting the responsibility of parents and legal guardians to ensure the access of minors to SRH services and commodities can serve as an alternative path to increasing the protection of teenagers from unplanned pregnancies. This can serve as the focal point to refocus the discussion on why and how minors should have access to sexual and reproductive health information and services.
Responsible parenthood, as defined by the RH law, refers to the will and ability of a parent to respond to the needs and aspirations of the family and children. Looking at this term from a new perspective, we can reinterpret this to emphasize the duty of parents and legal guardians to ensure that their children will be able to reach their full potential in terms of health, social development, and economic potentials.
Parents and guardians obviously play a crucial role in promoting positive sexual health outcomes, influencing the sexual behaviors of their children, and aiding them in accessing the health interventions that are provided in the community. All parents and legal guardians aspire for the good health and development of their children. Along with school and health professionals, they share the responsibility of ensuring that children can attain sexual health and general wellbeing. Conversing about the body, consent, and touching helps parents be supportive agents in the health decision-making of their children.
Young people’s ability to control, decide, and plan about their bodies has been associated with the capability to complete their education, achieve their career goals, increase their chances of breaking out of the cycle of poverty, and have higher levels of satisfaction in their relationships. It also leads to positive mental health outcomes.
Research suggests that teenagers who engage in healthy conversations on sexual and reproductive health with their parents may help reduce the chances of engaging in risky sexual behaviors that can lead to unintended pregnancies. Teens who also have high levels of communication with their parents are more likely to discuss pregnancy, sexually transmitted infection prevention, and use contraception. Teenagers also echo that open and honest conversations with parents about sex and sexuality can help them avoid unintended pregnancy.
For parents and guardians to fulfil this role and responsibility, they need support and assistance. Civil society organizations can actively develop initiatives and innovative tools that are targeted towards parents and guardians. These can be in the form of giving educational sessions on sexual and reproductive health, conducting communication skills-building workshops, connecting them to websites or platforms where they can access age-appropriate sex education materials, and linking them to support groups where they can learn from other people.
While the legal barrier and policy landscape on sexual and reproductive health and rights remain challenging, civil society can enable parents and guardians to become active collaborators and first-line responders in addressing the teenage pregnancy problem in the Philippines.
Their active participation and intervention can then be the alternative interim channel for young people to exercise their informed choice over their sexual health. Hopefully, this will lead to greater opportunities to realize the youth’s full potential and aspirations.
Iverly Viar has handled projects on human rights, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and women, peace, and security. She previously worked with Oxfam Pilipinas as project officer for the Sexual Health and Empowerment Project. She was also part of the first cohort of the Development Entrepreneurship Mentoring Program of the Coalitions for Change.