The Philippines has the second highest teenage pregnancy rate in south-east Asia. Since young girls face increased health risks in childbirth, the rise in teenage pregnancies is cited as one of the factors in the country’s high maternal death rate; around 14 women die each day in the Philippines due to complications arising from childbirth.
Now a controversial reproductive health bill has come before Congress. The authors say the aim of the bill is not only to prevent unwanted pregnancies, but also to reduce the number of maternal deaths by improving sex education and providing access to free contraception. In a country where a packet of condoms or contraceptive pills currently cost more than many spend on their weekly food, birth control is rarely an option, particularly among the poorest.
Speaking to the news agency IRIN back in March, the reproductive health adviser in the Philippines for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) said that the babies of teenage girls were often “sickly and malnourished” because young mothers were frequently those least able to give quality care to their children. The adviser said it was common for girls to have a low understanding about fertility and sexuality and some didn’t even know why they got pregnant.
With a lack of easily available and affordable contraception, women in the Philippines are also at greater risk from suffering complications because of multiple births in rapid succession. These risks are compounded by a shortage of emergency and specialist care, particularly in poorer or more remote regions. The new bill aims to help women plan their pregnancies and family size.
However, the bill faces significant opposition from the Roman Catholic Church, which still has huge political influence in the country. One senior Catholic official is reported in a Guardian article as saying that “distributing contraceptives to anyone who wants them” would hurt rather than help society. Despite the strength of Catholicism in the country, surveys show that more than two-thirds of Filipinos support the bill. The country’s president, Benigno Aquino, has also leant his weight to the bill and the political debate over its contents is likely to begin in earnest over the next few weeks. Supporters of the bill hope for a victory to improve the lives of girls and women across the Philippines. As one pregnant 14-year old told the Guardian, after expressing a wish that she’d known about birth control, “I realise girls my age should be in school …not taking care of a baby”.