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Measures to help the urban poor in the Philippines

In the Philippines this week, political activists were giving out free condoms on Valentine’s day to raise support for a new bill - ‘The Responsible Parenthood, Reproductive Health and Population and Development Act of 2011’.

The Act contains legislative measures to promote women’s health and reproductive rights, by ensuring health centres offer a range of family planning methods and the poor are provided with free or subsidised family planning assistance. Healthcare services are also targeted by the bill, which proposes increasing the ratio of midwives and skilled staff at deliveries and providing better access to obstetric care for the poor. In addition, health and sex education would be mandatory in schools from Grade 5 and all citizens would have guaranteed rights of access to information about reproductive and family planning services.

Backers believe that if the Act is passed, it could reduce maternal mortality in the Philippines by 2,100 deaths each year and prevent 800,000 unplanned births. Over half of pregnancies in the Philippines are unintended, leading to a high number of induced abortions. According to a report from the World Health Organisations (WHO), 11 Filipino women die every day due to forced abortions from unwanted pregnancies. Many of these women are poor, with little or no access to family planning services. The campaigners also believe the bill will help stem the rising rates of HIV/AIDS in the country and were copying the Department of Health’s (DOH) actions this time last year, when condoms were given out by the DOH to raise awareness about the disease.

The Catholic Church retains its traditional opposition to artificial methods of birth control, but political activists in the Philippines believe the new measures are essential, pointing to the growing burden on the state of the rising population, now estimated at over 100 million and increasing by nearly 2 per cent per year.

With over a fifth of the population living in extreme poverty (according to WHO data, 22 per cent of Filipinos survive on less than 1 dollar per day) overcrowding is now becoming a severe problem. In the capital Manila, nearly 40 per cent of residents live in shanty towns and with further migration from rural areas, there could be 9 million shanty dwellers by 2050. IRIN reports on the growing concern about the spread of these slums, especially after a number of deadly fires recently hit poor districts of Manila. On 15th February, a child died and around 10,000 inhabitants of the Bahay Toro slum lost their homes when fire gutted the flimsy wooden houses. And in January, 12 people died, most of them children, when fire raged through a coastal suburb of Manila. With homes clustered tightly together and inaccessible for fire trucks, poor dwellers of the shanties are highly vulnerable.

There is certainly much work to be done to raise standards of living among the poorest in the Philippines. Supporters of the new bill will be hoping the measures it contains are one way to help improve the lives of the poor.

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