As I prepare for another trip to Mindanao, this time to Davao, I know I am going to meet yet another. I have been in the Philippines now for two years and have travelled many times and often to very remote areas. On each and every trip, in spite of the beauty and warmth that surrounds me, what lingers in my memory, painfully long and hard, is the look on the face of yet another.
As a result, each time I come back to Manila, I am energized to make a difference. With passion, motivation and commitment, I do the very best I can, whenever I can, whether I am with the President or I am with a driver. I am a wife, a mother, a sister, a Catholic and I am the Country Representative of the United Nations Population Fund in the Philippines.
At UNFPA, how do we see the Philippines? A middle income country with a youthful population experiencing enviable economic growth and currently led by a committed national government.
At the same time, however, it is confronted by increasing numbers of women and girls dying while trying to give life, many of which are preventable. Children are having children instead of acquiring knowledge and skills. HIV rates are increasing. This happens where only a minority of women have access to the information and services they need to control their own bodies and their own lives.
I often speak about the “Two Philippines” and the “Paradox of the Philippines.” And more recently, I have spoken about how we are failing our young people. But most of you reading this already know this. So instead, let me introduce you to “Peachy.”
Peachy is 17 years old. She has two children. I met her in Cagayan de Oro at a ceremony where her one-month-old child dubbed UNFPA’s “Sendong baby” was presented with a birth certificate and a scholarship, among other things. Peachy was also provided with what she will need to set up her own sari-sari store.
During her second pregnancy, Peachy did not have any checkups until she came to a UNFPA-supported RH service in the evacuation center where she stayed after tropical storm Sendong. She didn’t even know that she was already in labor. She was in a UNFPA car being rushed to a hospital but ended up delivering in our car.
Peachy comes from one of the poorest municipalities in her province, which incidentally also has among the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the area. At least her second baby now has a scholarship and Peachy can generate some income, but I ask myself what about the many others? On every visit I make I meet many Peachys.
One of the most frequent questions I am asked is, what is my impression of the Philippines. Everyone wants to know how the Philippines compares to other countries I have worked in or its neighbors.
This is a bit of a snapshot approach when what is really needed is perspective – where you have come from and where you are going. So I always answer by using the analogy of a race in which the Philippines and Japan were way ahead at the start. However, the Philippines didn’t run quickly enough, and in the process, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia overtook the Philippines.
That’s not all. The Philippines may currently be ahead of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos but the rate at which she is running means that they are catching up. Apologies for such a simplistic example, but I hope the analogy is clear.
Peachy of course is completely unaware of this race. For her mother, for her, for her first child, not much has changed – they are the living testimony of the vicious cycle of poverty from one generation to another. It will however be different for her second child – our Sendong baby – we hope.
For many Filipinos, the opportunity to work abroad as an OFW breaks this vicious cycle, and in fact the impact of the OFWs on the economic growth of the Philippines is significant. And yet, that’s not the whole story.
Let me introduce you to “Bibi,” a lovely 9-year-old girl I met in a province in Luzon. Bibi lives in a crisis center. She is a survivor of incest. Her mother is an OFW. Therein lies another paradox – the family as a unit is enshrined in the Constitution and yet the very activity that contributes to so much growth and development is eroding the families of so many.
On every visit I make, I meet or hear of yet another Bibi.
For me, for UNFPA, Peachy and Bibi are more than statistics. They are more than survey results, they are more than debates, they are more than factories to produce OFWs, and therefore the time is now to make a real difference in their lives.
They deserve options and choices – it is their right. Only they should have control over their own bodies and their own lives. It is their right.
But as I finish this piece – my first for Rappler – on my way to Davao to assess how best UNFPA can support the government to respond to Typhoon Pablo, it saddens me to know I will meet yet another. – Rappler.com
(The author is country representative of the United Nations Population Fund in the Philippines.)