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Philippines passes important new health bill

Joyous scenes have greeted the ratification of the new reproductive health bill in the Philippines.

The long-awaited bill only now needs the signature of the president, Benigno Aquino, a supporter of the new legislation. Once he has signed, the bill will be passed into law and will make contraception and family planning advice available through state health centres.

Reproductive health classes will be added to the national education curriculum under the new legislation. And provisions will also be made for women who have had abortions or suffered miscarriages to be afforded proper medical care. Speaking to The Guardian, a spokesperson for the Asian division of Human Rights Watch said “this law will be very important in improving the lives of millions of Filipina women and mothers who are presently receiving scant reproductive healthcare services from the government”.

The bill was opposed by the Roman Catholic Church, which still counts four-fifths of the population among its members. However, surveys among Filipinos suggested over two-thirds support the bill. With the current lack of easily available and affordable contraception, the Philippines has one of the fastest-rising populations in Asia, growing at nearly 2% every year. This growth presents a huge challenge to poverty-reduction measures in a country where poverty and malnutrition rates remain high.

One of the key aims of the new bill is to help women plan their pregnancies and family size and reduce unwanted pregnancies. Currently, the Philippines has the second-highest teenage pregnancy rate in South-East Asia. Women are also at greater risk from suffering complications because of multiple births in rapid succession. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), 11 women die each day as a result of pregnancy complications.

Meanwhile, the UNFPA is currently active in the southern Mindanao region hit by typhoon Bopha. Here, over 130,000 people are still living in evacuation centres or temporary shelters, where access to safe drinking water is often lacking due to ruined water systems. Recent assessments also show that thousands of homes, schools and government buildings, including health centres, have been totally destroyed. And electricity remains unavailable in most areas.

Doctors are working in some evacuation centres, but UNFPA has indentified a severe shortage of medical services for pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers. It is therefore supporting medical missions to the region which are helping to distribute supplies such as hygiene kits and provide reproductive health advice and services.

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