World Population Day: Women, RH, and disasters

Fritzie Rodriguez

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World Population Day: Women, RH, and disasters
Natural disasters have a strong impact on women and girls. On top of this, they suffer from another kind of disaster, one that deprives them of their reproductive rights.

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines is home to over 100 million people, the 12th largest population in the world and the 7th in Asia.

The more the merrier? Not always. Not when mouths and minds are left to dry, not when streets double as beds, not when families are merely dropping the dice in hopes of surviving another day. 

Poverty is a beast the Philippines has long fought. The battle is over for some Filipinos, but not yet for roughly 25 million others, World Bank data show.

The story worsens for families affected by natural disasters and conflict situations.

“In emergencies, the already existing social, physical, and economic inequities among population groups become more pronounced,” Klaus Beck, UN Population Fund (UNFPA) country representative, said on Friday, July 10, ahead of World Population Day.

Women and girls, Beck stressed, are affected the most. “They’re less able to safeguard their own needs and interests compared with others,” he added. Due to lack of reproductive health (RH) and protective services, Beck said women and girls are put at risk of sexual violence, maternal death, sexually transmitted diseases like HIV, and unwanted pregnancies – which then puts the cycle on a spin.

This is a reality for countries whose governments neglect their citizens’ RH needs, as well as the gender aspects of their disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM). 

“No excuses, protecting a woman’s life is a priority,” the UNFPA stressed in celebration of World Population Day on July 11. This year, the UNFPA focuses on “vulnerable populations in emergencies,” including women, girls, and persons with disabilities (PWD).

Gender, disasters

“Poverty itself is a disaster,” said Welfare Secretary Corazon “Dinky” Soliman. 

If that is the case, then several Filipino women and girls are living through disasters every day. In the past 6 years, women have been the 5th poorest basic sector in the Philippines. Their poverty incidence remains virtually unchanged at 25.6% as of 2012, the National Statistical Coordination Board revealed.

Disasters could push these girls further into poverty. In 2013 alone, over two million women and girls were left devastated by Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), according to the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

They may also fall victim to human trafficking and sexual violence, as perpetrators take advantage of the chaotic nature of some evacuation centers. Some girls, the DSWD found, were lured by perpetrators through false promises of schooling or work abroad. 

This is precisely why DRRM strategies should also address gender-based violence and discrimination, the DSWD said. Simple projects like gender sensitivity trainings among evacuees and responders, and building safe and functional women and children friendly spaces – like bathrooms, breastfeeding stations, therapy and sleeping quarters – could already save many lives. 

DRRM should also be more inclusive of the needs of PWDs through infrastructure, programs, and consultations.

To address such issues, Soliman stressed that people’s capacities as individuals, families, and communities should be strengthened. Empowerment begins by informing people about their rights. 

“They’re more aware, hence are more able to protect themselves and respond to their needs,” Soliman added. 

The fight against sexual violence, however, should not be the women’s burden. Men, advocates say, should learn to respect. 

A different kind of disaster

With or without storms, however, women and girls may still suffer a different kind of disaster –  one that deprives them of their ability to take control over their own bodies.

The year was 1950. The Philippines and the Republic of Korea both had a population of 19 to 20 million. That time, the Philippines’ GDP per capita was higher than Korea’s.

But what happened next?

Post-war South Korea was among the world’s poorest. While rebuilding its economy, it also began a national family planning campaign in 1962. This included maternal and child health services, supplies, and information.

In the 1960s and 1970s, most East Asian countries implemented similar programs, according to the UNFPA. The Philippines, however, did not.

By 2008, South Korea’s GDP per capita grew by 2,200%, while the Philippines only did by 170%. Both countries increased their population over time, but the Philippines kept filling its basket with more eggs even after hearing several cracks. 

(Source: UNFPA report, 2014)
Philippines South Korea
Change in child population
(under 15 y.o.)
+320% -13%
Change in working-age population
(15-64 y.o.)
+549% +245%
Change in total population +448% +159%

In over 60 years, South Korea rose to become one of the world’s largest economies, with other countries studying its success story and development pattern.

Its current population is around 50 million. South Korea’s fertility decline gave it a “tailwind” for economic growth, the UNFPA said in a 2014 report, “with far more resources per capita for investing in human capital and economic growth, thereby raising living standards.”

In the same period, the Philippine population grew twice as large as South Korea, but its economy failed to catch up.

“The experience of these countries also illustrates the importance of differences in policy settings, as well as in investments in the social sectors, especially education,” the UNFPA added.

In 2014, after several years of debates and delays, the Philippines finally ruled its RH law constitutional. Supplies and services are already being rolled out, Dr Juan Antonio Perez III, executive director of the Commission on Population, told Rappler.

“We’ve created networks of regional teams working with local governments in all regions of the country to implement this law,”  Perez explained. “And we’re working very closely with civil society at national, regional, and even LGU level to support the implementation of the law.”

The Department of Health, he said, has been sending RH supplies directly to health centers and regional health units. “What we’re doing at this stage is finding out what the needs are after the initial delivery of supplies,” he added.

The law prioritizes the same services that South Koreans have been receiving as early as the 1960s. Better late than never.

The challenge now, advocates say, is to ensure the RH law’s proper and sustained implementation across local governments nationwide. –

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