MANILA, Philippines – Young, sexually active, and clueless.
That is how some unwanted pregnancies start out in the Philippines and elsewhere.
The problem traces its roots to the lack of access to appropriate sexual and reproductive health information and services, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said.
“Adolescent fertility rates have declined in the last two decades in all countries with available data, with the exception of the Philippines where there has been little change,” the UNFPA reported in February.
At present, there are nearly one billion young people aged between 10 and 24 living in the Asia-Pacific region, accounting for more than a quarter of its population.
A “significant proportion” are sexually active.
“While for many the onset of sexual activity is associated with marriage, an increasing number are initiating sex before marriage,” the report said
Around one-third of adolescent pregnancies were conceived prior to marriage, an unpublished analysis of the 2013 Philippine Demographic and Health Survey reported.
The burden carried by such adolescents is greater as they have insufficient knowledge and life-skills regarding safe and consensual relationships, the UNFPA said. (READ: Young, pregnant, and poor)
They also face barriers to accessing services and commodities needed to avoid unsafe sex and its consequences. (READ: Is learning safe sex unsafe?)
The UNFPA stressed that poor sexual and reproductive health not only affects the youth physically but also socioeconomically.
“These negative consequences extend to young people’s families and future generations, and can perpetuate a cycle of poor health and disadvantage,” the UNFPA said.
While improvements in the Philippines have been slow, South Asian countries have seen much progress. Their adolescent fertility has fallen by nearly 40%, partly because of a reduction in child marriage.
“Fertility rates are higher in settings where early marriage is prevalent and among rural girls compared with those living in urban areas,” the UNFPA observed. “Adolescent pregnancy is also associated with less education attainment and lower socioeconomic status.”
Forced, violent sex
Several adolescent girls and young women reported coerced sex.
In fact, in the Philippines, 15% of adolescent girls who had sex before the age of 15 reported that their first encounter was forced. The rate is only 5% for those who had sex over the age of 15.
As a result, the 15-19 age group is at risk of the following:
- Early and unintended pregnancy
- Unsafe abortion
- Sexually transmitted disease (STD)
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
Such risks are especially high among young women who sell sex. They also have high rates of multiple partners and sexual violence.
Adolescent female sex workers aged 14 to 17 were more than 3 times “less likely to negotiate condom use with their clients than adult sex workers.”
In addition, “rates of violence are also high among young female sex workers, men who have sex with men (MSM), and young transgender people,” the UNFPA said.
Around 50% of Filipino MSMs said their first sexual encounter with a man was forced.
There are various factors influencing risky sexual behaviors. One of them is alcohol, with 9% to 12% in the Philippines reporting binge drinking.
Lack of parental support or living away from one’s family has also been associated with early initiation of sex.
But some influences can be good. A study in the Philippines showed a link between delayed sexual initiation and having a close relationship with parents.
Some influences, meanwhile, can be both harmful and good, the UNFPA suggested. “While religious taboos may be a barrier limiting open discussion of sexual health and access to services, a family’s religious or spiritual beliefs can also be protective against risky sexual behaviors.”
Other factors that could pressure young people into sex are friends, the media, and gender norms.
Condom or no condom?
In the Philippines, more than half of adolescent girls rely on short-acting methods like pills and condoms.
Meanwhile, the use of more effective methods like intrauterine devices (IUD) and implants is very low.
Not everyone uses condoms either. The UNFPA found that young people are “much less likely” to use condoms with romantic partners, thinking that condoms imply promiscuity. (READ: Are you afraid of condoms?)
This mindset is dangerous as it could lead to unwanted pregnancies and STDs.
In fact, self-reported STD among young Filipino men is at least 3 times higher than among older men.
To improve such conditions, the UNFPA suggested the following:
- Support research on sexual and reproductive health.
- Strengthen laws granting the youth access to sexual and reproductive health information, commodities, and services.
- Improve sexuality education.
- Increase youth participation in policy-making and programming.