Young, pregnant and poor

Fritzie Rodriguez

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For poor teenage mothers, life is a roller coaster ride that just goes 'round and 'round

YOUNG AND PREGNANT. How do education, poverty, and pregnancy interplay in the Philippines? Photo by Joel Nito/AFP

MANILA, Philippines – At the tender age of 14, Myrna had already gone through what some women twice her age experience. She was forced into an early life of marriage and motherhood; ultimately depriving her of her youth and the freedom to make her own decisions.

Myrna belonged to a family of 12, they lived among the rural poor in Mindoro.

Her mother made her quit school when she was a high school sophomore. Myrna disagreed, but she could not do anything. They had no money, her mother insisted.

Being the eldest daughter, she had a lot on her plate – but only metaphorically. Since there were so many children to feed, Myrna’s family constantly struggled with hunger and poverty. 

While other girls were busy studying and wading their way through puberty, Myrna stayed at home. Aside from doing household tasks, she also took care of her 9 siblings.

The obedient daughter was quietly cleaning their yard when a 19-year old boy named Juan befriended her. “Lagi niya akong tinutulungan maglinis, akala ko kaibigan lang,” Myrna shared. (He always helped me with chores. I thought he was just being friendly) 

But Juan had other things in mind, he wanted to court her, but Myrna refused because she hoped to continue studying someday.

So soon

In 1971, Myrna’s mother forced her to marry Juan. At 14, Myrna became a bride.

Wala pa nga akong mens noong ikinasal akoWalang alam,” Myrna, now 57 years old, recalled of that time. (I still had not experienced my first period when I got married) 

Myrna had to leave home and live with Juan. She did not want to share a bed with a man she barely knew, but she had to – they were married after all, the older folks would say.

One evening, Juan forced himself on her. She was then brought to the hospital due to post-coital bleeding and an infection. “Kung ako ang magulang mo, ipapakulong ko ang asawa mo (If I were your parents, I will report your husband to the authorities),” Myrna recalled what the doctor told her. (READ: Violence against women) 

A traumatized Myrna gazed at her mother, expecting that she would be brought home. But her mother did not say anything and Myrna continued living with Juan.

Myrna remained mum. At 15, she gave birth to her first child. She now has 5 children.

POOR MOTHERS. Some mothers have difficulties getting gainful employment, while also fulfilling their family duties. Photo by Noel Celis/AFP

 Myrna is one of thousands of Filipinas forced to grow up too fast.

In the Philippines, the number of teenage pregnancies among girls under 15 years of age has climbed over the past decade, according to the National Statistics Office (NSO). 

The World Health Organization (WHO) says young mothers are more vulnerable to maternal deaths, stillbirths, and other pregnancy complications. Young mothers may also put their child’s life at risk. They are more likely to have low birth weight infants, WHO warned. (WATCH: Children bearing children)

Number of live births by Filipino teenage mothers
(under 15 years old)
2000 755
2005 811
2010 1,324

If they are barely children themselves, how can they take care of another child?

‘Uneducated sex’

For older teenagers, the situation is no less encouraging. 

According to the latest Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Survey (YAFS), the percentage of Filipino girls aged 15-19 who were already childbearing has more than doubled in the past 7 years, from 6.3% in 2006 to 13.6% in 2013.

In 2013 alone, 1.4 million women in this age group were pregnant with their first child or were already mothers. 

The NSO reported that the overall incidence of teenage pregnancies has increased over 10 years. 

Incidence of teenage pregnancies among Filipinos
(under 20 years old)

2000 125,270
2010 206,574

Majority of these women did not finish high school, according to the 2011 Family and Health Survey (FHS). As a result, they lack the same employment opportunities as those women how finish their studies. 

Princess Nemenzo, renowned feminist and social activist, believes these adolescent mothers and their partners were not aware of the possible outcomes and consequences of having sex at a young age. 

Nemenzo stressed the need for adequate sex education in schools, “Women are dying. Ang daming nakasalalay sa babae. Importante and edukasyon.”

Dim reality

The Philippines had the 3rd highest number of teenage pregnancies among ASEAN countries, according to a 2012 report by the University of the Philippines Population Institute based on the latest available UN statistics.

Births per 1,000 women aged 15-19 years old
(ASEAN countries 2000-2005)
Laos 88.4
Timor Leste 64.3
Philippines 51.6
Cambodia 49.3
Indonesia 47.3

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) views adolescent pregnancy not only as a health issue, but also a development issue.

The UNFPA says poverty, gender inequality, and unequal access to education, livelihood, social and health services contribute to perpetuating a vicious cycle that victimizes poor women. 

If a woman is unable to access education due to poverty, she is at a higher risk of becoming a victim of gender-based discrimination. If she encounters abuse, she may not know what to do or where to go for help.

Her lack of education can also compromise her livelihood opportunities and her health. 

Children are directly affected as well. If the mother is unaware of proper childcare practices, the children will suffer. Her lack of paid employment may also disable her from providing her children’s needs, such as nutritious meals.

In the end, her family becomes more vulnerable to illnesses, poverty, and hunger. Her children’s children will then be potentially exposed to the same vulnerabilities.

The NSO reported that the percentage of teenage brides decreased by a mere 1.8% over 10 years. 

Number of Filipino teenage brides







These numbers paint a sad reality for the young girls deprived of autonomy – over their own bodies and life decisions.

Once married, they would most likely quit school. Once pregnant, they would most likely stay at home – compromising their economic independence. All these can intensify the domestication of women.

The 2013 YAFS reported that 1 out of 3 Filipino youth engaged in premarital sex. At least 78% of those engaging in sex for the first time did not use protection.

Percentage of Filipino youth engaging in premarital sex






Among teenagers aged 15-19 years old, only 28.7% used family planning methods – both modern and traditional – according to the 2011 FHS.

Unintended pregnancies, especially among poor households, are linked to cases of poor maternal health and poor childcare practices. (READ: Hungry and pregnant in the Philippines) 

They are also at risk from carrying out unsafe abortions.

The 2011 FHS suggested that the use of family planning is influenced by social class, age, and education. (READ: Condoms and sex ed in the PH)

Vicious cycle

In 1989, Myrna began working in Manila to support her children. She and her husband lived in a small house in a crowded urban poor community. She sewed rugs for a living.

Ayoko matulad sa akin mga anak ko (I don’t want my children to be like me),” she said. “Ako kayang tiisin walang kain-kain, pero sila huwag (I can endure not eating, but not my children)” 4 of her children finished vocational courses, but her daughter eloped at 17 and was unable to study.

“Iniisip ko pa rin minsan, paano kaya kung nakapagaral ako?” Myrna mused. (Sometimes I wonder, what if I was able to pursue my studies?) 

Mryna said that she is saddened by the sight of poor teenage mothers. In her community, many girls continue to drop out of high school, they opt to stay at home with their babies.

Her neighbor, Laila, is a 19-year old mother of two. She stopped studying at 15 when she first got pregnant.

The shy teenager whispered, “’Dun ko lang nalaman ang sex, noong nabuntis na ‘ko. ‘Di naman ‘yun tinuro sa school.” (I only learned about sex when I got pregnant. They didn’t teach that in school) 

When asked about her stance on the Reproductive Health Law, Laila shrugged, “’Di ko alam ‘yun.” (READ: 5 misconceptions about RH)

Myrna hopes that today’s youth will know better but realizes that nothing much has changed. –

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