The first time it happened, Joy decided right away that she needed to terminate her pregnancy. Her friends told her about pills she could take to induce an abortion. She bled for days and was so weak she could not even stand. The stomach contractions felt like her abdomen was being crushed. She didn’t tell anyone except her friends that she was pregnant – not her family and not the boy who had gotten her pregnant.
Joy was 15 years old.
The second time she got pregnant, Joy decided to do things differently. Her boyfriend JR who works as a porter in a cargo truck yard had a job and could provide for her and their baby. She moved in with him and they now have two children together.
Joy is 18 years old. Her partner JR is 35 years old.
She laughed at their age gap and sheepishly admited that she is at times embarrassed to be seen in public with him. “With his beard, he looks much older now. Sometimes, I tell him not to walk too close to me.”
Still, Joy said she is happy with their relationship. “At least, he has a job and can provide for us.”
Multiplying teen pregnancies
This is the face of teen pregnancy in the Philippines: rampant, frequent, most common among poor and uneducated women. Mothers have just entered their teens and fathers are sometimes twice their age.
Every day, there are about 500 Filipino teenagers like Joy who become mothers. The Philippines has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the region.
Government statistics show that more than 18,000 girls between the ages of 15-19 years old have already had two children and another almost 3,000 girls of that age group already have had 3.
During an information caravan on reproductive health, the Democratic Socialist Women of the Philippines received two reports of 9-year-old girls getting pregnant; one in Camarines Sur and the other in Iloilo. The youngest reported maternal death was 11 years old.
There is no hard data yet on the number of teenage girls who are in relationships with much older men, but adolescent medicine specialist Dr Emma Llanto says she sees about 10-15 teen mothers every Wednesday – the clinic schedule specifically designated for teen mothers.
Most expectant mothers are between 16-18 years old but Llanto is seeing an increasing number of younger girls. The youngest patient Llanto has seen in her clinic was 14. Llanto has also noted an increasing number of women in relationships with much older men.
“Most of the time they have no idea about how their bodies work. They have absolutely no idea what contraceptives even mean,” lamented Llanto.
Many, particularly those in relationships with much older men, don’t have the knowledge or power to negotiate their use birth control. Joy’s boyfriend JR does not know she is using birth control.
“He wants us to have a lot of children which I don’t want. Hello, life is hard! He has a job, but it’s not as if he is rich,”Joy told me, sounding very much like the 18-year-old that she is.
The cost of teen pregnancy
Some consequences of teen pregnancy are easy to identify: girls who can’t finish school, their developing bodies are not fully equipped to take on the demands of pregnancy, the babies they give birth to are most likely to be malnourished or suffer from neglect. But the ramifications stretch out over an entire lifetime.
“Adolescents who have begun childbearing before the age of 18 are less likely to complete secondary education. This impacts employment opportunities in the future and total life earnings of families. Taking further the net estimated effect of early childbearing on high school completion rate and foregone earnings, it roughly equates to annual losses of P33 billion pesos for the country,” said Klaus Beck UNFPA country representative in the Philippines.
A 2016 study supported by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) mapped out the snowballing economic cost of teen pregnancy in a young girl’s life.
Health economist Dr Alejandro Herrin presented the study at a forum in August last year and explained that completing high school education increases daily wage rates of women by P300. At age 20, a girl who began childbearing before age 18 may earn only about P46 a day, compared to the P361 per day estimate for one who completed high school and did not get pregnant early.
“When taken all together, the potential lifetime earnings lost due to early childbearing is P33 billion which is equal to 1.1% of our gross domestic product in 2012,” Herrin said at the forum.
Addressing teen pregnancy
The real tragedy of teen pregnancy is that it is completely preventable. In most parts of the world, teen pregnancy rates are declining.
Our rising number of teen mothers is a reflection of our continued denial of the problem and refusal to acknowledge what has been proven to work in managing teen pregnancy: keeping and giving girls incentives to stay in school, sex education not limited to abstinence and access to reproductive health services. Most importantly, stretching the imagination to think of ways to go around the legal barriers that prevent teens from securing low-cost birth control.
Five years after the Reproductive Health Law (RH Law) was passed, the Department of Education has yet to fully implement the comprehensive sexuality education mandated by the RH Law. The Department of Health has yet to capitalize on social media as a cost-efficient and effective launch platform for a massive information campaign on safe sex targeted at the youth. Social media would be particularly useful in pushing messages to teens who are no longer in school and are typically more vulnerable to risky sexual behavior.
There are more complex barriers, for sure. The legalities that prohibit minors from getting access to RH services without parental consent, the age of consent pegged at 12 (and one of the lowest in the world), and the Supreme Court Temporary Restraining Order on contraceptives that is still being ironed out, for starters. But interventions proven to be effective are basic: sex education and birth control. These interventions are urgently needed and with some imagination, can be delivered despite the legal barriers.
“Teen pregnancy is a failure of the whole system: the community, the family, the individual and the government,” said Dr. Jigs Danila of the Department of Health. – Rappler.com