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UN delegate raises issue of reproductive health in the Philippines

This week, a United Nations (UN) delegation has been visiting the Philippines.

Officials from a number of UN bodies, including the Development Program (UNDP), the Population Fund (UNFPA), the World Food Program (WFP) and the Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have been witnessing how the UN Country Team works alongside civil agencies and the private sector to alleviate poverty. The officials were particularly keen to learn about the close collaboration in dealing with emergency and relief operations and peace-building initiatives through poverty reduction.

The economy of the Philippines has grown by an average of 4% annually over the past decade. Despite this growth, problems such as high poverty and malnutrition rates persist. The situation is exacerbated by rising unemployment and one of Asia’s fastest-growing populations (at nearly 2% per year), which means the country is expected to have over 100 million people by 2015.

Some see a slowing of the increase in the population as a key measure in the fight against poverty. Last month, the Philippine government opened debate on a reproductive health bill which seeks to improve sex education and access to information about contraception. One congressman proponent of the bill insisted any anti-poverty strategies would continue to be undermined by a ‘ballooning population’. A survey at the end of last year showed that 7 in 10 Filipinos supported the bill. However, with strong opposition from the Roman Catholic Church, the bill was not included in a list of 20 priority measures recently submitted to Congress for swift passage by the government.

Brian Bowler, leader of the delegation of six UN organisations, noted the strong religious principles of the Philippines. However, Reuters also reported the UN delegate expressing concern about “the absence of a national reproductive health policy, especially for the poorest”. This is seen as a key factor in the high maternal death rate in the Philippines, where 11 women die each day giving birth. In some regions the problem is particularly severe; in certain communities on the island of Mindanao, death rates are double the national average, with 320 mothers dying for every 100,000 live births.

The issue of high maternal mortality was of particular concern to some of the UN representatives, though the delegation also noted the Philippines is struggling to meet its Millennium Development Goals for reducing malnutrition, achieving universal primary education and reducing gender-based violence. However, the delegation praised the government of the Philippines for its commitment to development targets, whilst acknowledging there is much work still to be done.

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