HIV and teen pregnancy: A national youth crisis

Ana P. Santos
HIV and teen pregnancy: A national youth crisis
The absence of teen voices in public health issues affecting the youth has triggered alarming rates of teen pregnancy and HIV infection

MANILA, Philippines – Adolescents and children’s rights advocates have called for  the urgent need to galvanize efforts to develop specific interventions that will focus on two crises that are affecting Filipino youth: human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and teen pregnancy.

A panel of local and international experts gathered together for a town hall on young people’s rights and access to services in commemoration of World AIDS Day.

The October 2014 AIDS Registry report released by the Department of Health National Epidemiological Center (DOH-NEC) showed that there were 5,010 new HIV infections recorded from January to October 2014.

Everyday, about 16 Filipinos – a third of whom are below the age of 30 – test positive for HIV.

The Philippines has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the ASEAN region. The 2013 Young Adult and Fertility Survey (YAFS) showed that 13.6% or one in 10 girls between 15 to 19 already had a child. In the last YAFS survey conducted in 2002, it was at 6.3%.

“The Philippines has the gold medal in HIV and in teen pregnancy (increase),” said Percival Cendaña, commissioner of the National Youth Commission. “This is not a gold medal that we can be proud to wear.” (Read: Urgent response needed to address teen pregnancy)

Teens: left out

Teens continue to be left out in the conversation when it comes to drafting laws and creating a safe environment where they can access sexual reproductive health services.

Pasaway (rebellious). Stigmatized as irresponsible risk-takers yet locked in passive and dependent roles. These contradictory views on young people have an impact on their access to sexual health services,” said May-I Fabros, Women’s Task Force co-convenor.

Experts and advocates noted that some Philippine laws run counter and are not responsive to the sexual health needs of adolescents. 

  • 12 and below: Age that constitutes statutory rape. In other countries, this age has been matched with sexual debut to ensure access to services and information. YAFS 2013 figures show that the age of first sexual experience among Filipino youth is 17. 
  • 18: Age when an adolescent can access reproductive and sexual health services without the consent of a parent/guardian. 
  • 18: Age of marriage, but a person between 18-21 needs written parental or guardian consent to get married
  • 15: Age of criminal liability and age when an adolescent can work

“How much power are we really willing to concede to adolescents? I cannot overemphasize that rights do not begin at 18 and neither does decision-making,” added Fabros. 

The advocates also noted that while the Reproductive Health (RH) Law provides provisions for comprehensive sexuality education, without access to commodities and services, there is minimal impact on the prevention of pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV.

“Adolescents mainly remain invisible in the HIV response. They are absent in family planning programs, and adolescent voices are rarely heard in these issues,” said Lotta Sylwander, UNICEF Representative.

Having a seat at the table

Michael Kirby, a former high court judge in Australia, made strong statements about the country’s complacency in addressing the urgent issues of HIV and teen pregnancy.

“What’s wrong with you, Philippines? You have a national calamity here. This is a national disgrace. This (number of HIV infections) is a really shocking and horrible situation that we have here,” Kirby said, adding that he was not afraid of “ruffling a few feathers to say what needs to be said.”

Kirby went on to explain the AIDS paradox, which posits that the best way to reduce HIV in the community is to involve the people most at risk for infection.

Laws that have impediments to accessing services will stop people from getting help.

“We must never have a meeting on HIV without someone who is living the experience and can speak from his heart and mind,” said Kirby, noting that there were no panel representatives from the vulnerable sectors: youth, transgenders, and sex workers.

According to Emma Brathwaite, HIV and Adolescent Specialist for UNICEF, one of the main organizers of the event, representatives from each of those sectors were invited to the panel, but for a variety of reasons, could not attend the town hall.

“We already know what to do about addressing HIV: condoms, needle exchange, education, testing and counseling. It’s not rocket science,” insisted Kirby.

“There has to be a better sense of urgency in the Philippines. Young Filipinos are going to suffer needlessly because of your complacency. We need to make decisions now that grow out of love (rather than judgment) and the desire to save lives,” Kirby said.  Rappler.com

Young pregnant woman image from Shutterstock

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