women's rights

[OPINION] Ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health for young people in the PH

Bans Alqaseer, DK Fontamillas, Patty Miranda

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[OPINION] Ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health for young people in the PH
'The right to pleasure for young people is part of their ownership of their bodies...and institutions in society must be ready to support them every step of the way'

Women’s Month is upon us once more, with official statements, social media content, and themed events reminding us of the various opportunities and challenges women face in today’s contemporary world. A crucial, albeit disproportionately neglected, issue in the Philippines that deserves immediate attention and collective support is the enactment of a law to ensure that young people have full access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) information and services, as well as contraception.

Despite the decrease in the number of teen pregnancies during the COVID-19 pandemic, it bears reiterating that the numbers are still significant enough to require prioritization and direct government action. The Philippines has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates among the ASEAN member states. There are actual lives on the line behind the statistics. Thus, any proposed law reforms should also consider addressing the socio-structural barriers, such as persistent poverty, armed conflict and violence, and geographic isolation, that contribute to disproportionately high teen pregnancy rates. 

Progressive, rights-based law reform

Last month, the authors took part in public hearings in Congress to talk about the realities of teen pregnancy. As SRH advocates and members of a feminist collective working directly with young people, we asked lawmakers to consider three main points: the risks around teen pregnancies and unintended pregnancies that affects a woman throughout her life course, the role of girls in the development of public policies that directly and indirectly affect them, and the importance of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) in helping young people protect and advocate for their health and well-being.

We are essentially calling for progressive, rights-based law reform that enables minors to have comprehensive and unhampered access to SRH information, commodities, and services. Thus, a key provision of the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention bills filed in both houses of Congress grants minors, between the ages of 15-18, access to contraceptives. This access is provided alongside a duty of care to provide proper counseling from trained service providers, without the need for parental consent.  Healthcare practitioners have a responsibility to provide accurate and up-to-date information about available reproductive health services, including the right to informed choice and access to legal, medically safe, and effective family planning options.

The right to health, the right to pleasure

Providing continuous SRH services helps prevent unwanted or unplanned pregnancies, unnecessary maternal and infant mortality, and the spread of sexually transmitted infections such as HIV/AIDS. This is consistent with the concept of harm reduction, which includes practical interventions aimed at reducing the negative effects of health behaviors, while respectfully acknowledging the growing and evolving capacities of young people to make informed SRH decisions. 

We raised in plenary that we should always take a rights-based approach when making laws about teens’ bodies and SRHR. This includes acknowledging that adolescents have the right to express their sexuality and to choose whether, when, and with whom they want to have sex. We must see teenagers as individuals in charge of their own health, relationships, and sexuality. The right to pleasure for young people is part of their ownership of their bodies, and institutions in society must be ready to support them every step of the way. 

Young people’s inherent dignity and rights

Laws should not stand in the way of young people’s dignity and their inherent right to make decisions that affect their bodies and the rest of their lives. What adolescents need now is stigma-free support, comprehensive access to education and services, and opportunities for self and collective empowerment. 

However, one thorny point that has repeatedly come up during public debates is the claim that CSE programs lead to earlier or increased sexual activity. We wish to debunk this. On the contrary, when young people receive accurate, science-based information about puberty, reproduction, relationships, sexuality, the consequences of unsafe sex, how to avoid HIV and STIs, and unintended pregnancy, they make healthy, respectful, and responsible decisions. 

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Not a ‘difficult reform’ but the provision of bare minimums

While ensuring SRH access may appear to be a controversial issue among certain sectors, it should not be seen as a “difficult reform” given how important it is for everyone to work together and care for each other during and after the pandemic. Access to SRH is indeed “care,” which has been described in The Care Manifesto as “nurturing of all that is necessary for the welfare and flourishing of life.” The General Welfare Clause (Section 16 of the Local Government Code) mandates such care, also known as the duty of care, to which we are all entitled to, but most especially the most at-risk, excluded, and underserved among us.

Young people are not asking for much. We must not miss opportunities to practice the kind of care that honors a person’s full and felt sense of their gender and sexuality. This means recognizing the vulnerabilities of women and people of diverse sexuality, and providing support services that will empower them to take charge of their own safety and well-being. These are the bare minimums. – Rappler.com

Bans Alqaseer, DK Fontamillas, and Patty Miranda are feminist researchers and advocates who specialize in SRHR (Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights). As members of the Young Feminists Collective, they are committed to advocating for comprehensive and high-quality access to SRH information, commodities, and services of adolescents.

This piece is derived from the YoungFem’s position statement at the Committee Hearing on Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Bill. The YoungFem was founded by young, Filipino feminists in the development sector. It aims to foster collective care and provide a platform for collaborative action on various advocacies.

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