Text by Henrylito D. Tacio
Photos: World Vision and Shutterstock
In June last year, President Rodrigo R. Duterte signed Executive Order No. 141, declaring teenage pregnancies “a national priority” as the number of cases were expected to rise due to the coronavirus disease in 2019 (COVID-19).
Since most people were locked in their homes and there was nothing to do, there was a tendency that these young people may likely commit what couples usually do. In fact, several studies have shown that during the time of the pandemic, cases of teenage parenthood “have exponentially escalated.”
Even before the pandemic, teenage pregnancy was already a huge problem. The Philippine Statistics Authority, as cited in the EO, reported that 183,967 live births were recorded among adolescents aged 10 to 19 years old in 2018 and 180,916 for the same group in 2019.
In a survey conducted in 2020 by the Social Weather Stations (SWS), it was found that 59% of Filipinos believed that early teenage pregnancy is “the most important problem women face today.”
Thus, the EO stressed the need to implement measures that address the root causes of the rising number of adolescent pregnancies.
“The State shall mobilize existing coordinative and legal mechanisms related to the prevention of adolescent pregnancies, and to strengthen the adolescent’s capacity to make autonomous and informed decisions about their reproductive and sexual by ensuring access to comprehensive sexuality education and reproductive health and rights services,” the EO read.
Recent studies have shown that 13% of Filipino girls aged 15-19 are already pregnant. Demographers call this phenomenon teenage pregnancy. It happens when a female, who is less than 19 years old, becomes pregnant.
But what is alarming is that there are now girls below 15 years old who are already expecting a child. That’s according to The Forum for Family Planning and Development (The Forum), an advocacy organization that helps educate communities on reproductive health and rights.
“We work on the ground, and the problem is real and worrisome,” Benjamin de Leon, president of The Forum, said in a press statement. “Our most recent encounter was a 10-year-old pregnant girl. We come face-to-face with teen girls who have stopped schooling because they have started childbearing, and this scenario worsens in areas with poverty and lack of education.”
Findings of the National Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) conducted by PSA in 2017 unveiled gripping statistics: one in 10 girls aged 15-19 have begun childbearing. “About 8% were already mothers and 2% were already pregnant with their first child,” the report said.
What is alarming is that three regions in Mindanao – Davao region, Northern Mindanao and Southwestern Mindanao – recorded the highest rates of teen pregnancies at 18%, 14.7%, and 14.5%, respectively. All these were above the 8.6% national average.
In a Health and Lifestyle feature, author Ma. Vanessa L. Estinozo quoted Dr. Jean S. Tay, director of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Davao Doctors Hospital, on some factors why teenage girls are most likely to get pregnant: “If they are living together with their boyfriend, they are out of school, their parents are separated or one is overseas, they engage in sex at a young age and/or if they use condoms improperly.”
On the latter, Dr. Tay pointed out that “the risk of teen pregnancy increases 11.6 times with the use of condoms.” As such, she believes “sexual abstinence” as “the more effective and rightful solution.”
In Western countries, teenage pregnancy may not be surprising at all. But in a developing country like the Philippines, it may come as a shock – particularly among religious leaders. “From time to time, we always emphasized that pre-marital sex is morally wrong!” said a Catholic priest.
Poverty has been cited as one of the primary reasons why teen pregnancy is thriving! Data from the United Nations Population Fund showed that teenage pregnancy has a huge rate in the country, particularly among the poor. Two-thirds of Filipino women who give birth before age 20 belong to the low-class society.
But poverty is just one of the causes. The website of the Youth in the Philippine Society (YPS) cites other reasons:
· The immature and irresponsible behavior arising due to complex teenage psychology is another important cause of teenage pregnancies. Teenagers often go through several emotions because of their own transition from childhood and peer pressure.
· The dearth of sexual education among teenagers causes them to get abortions as they ultimately realize their inability to bear the responsibilities of being a parent at such a young age.
· The lack of attention and affection from family resulting in depression forces them to seek love and support from other people, especially members of the opposite sex.
· Overprotection gives rise to frustration and a feeling of not being loved and cared for. Thus, balance is the key to avoiding this problem. Lack of affectionate supervision of parents or guardians results in adolescents or teenage girls becoming pregnant.
“Sex outside of marriage with multiple partners has consequences,” wrote Dr. Mildred R. Yutuc, an obstetrician-gynecologist, in an article that appeared in Health and Home. “And when the girl is only in her teens, the consequences are truly serious.”
Some experts claim that due to becoming pregnant during adolescence, teen mothers are very likely to drop out of school because of their lost ambitions and dedication to getting an education.
The Annual Poverty Indicators Survey of the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) showed school dropouts have reached more than 2.97 million, 61.9% of whom are girls aged 16 to 24 who are forced into “marriage or family matters.”
“The number showed that the reason for the high dropout rate of girls is marriage and family matters, which can be treated also as teenage pregnancy,” Education Secretary Leonor Briones was quoted as saying by Philippine Star.
Both the young mother and her baby face a life-threatening situation, according to De Leon. “The bodies of adolescent and teen girls are not yet ready for the physical demands of childbearing,” he said. “Their babies bear the burden of this unhealthy condition that can lead to infant mortality, as babies born to teen mothers have far lower survival rates.”
Again, due to poverty, “many of those involved in teenage pregnancy die off prematurely because of lack of proper medical attention,” the YPS website stated.
A study done by the Population Institute of the University of the Philippines said more than 46% of teenage pregnant women resort to induced abortion. In fact, two out of every five teenage pregnancies are unwanted ones, the study said.
Aside from death, De Leon said the most common result is stunting, a condition characterized by slow or impeded growth. Stunting occurs from the time of conception to the first two years of life, also called the “first 1,000 days,” which is caused by the poor nutritional status of mother and child.
Meanwhile, the EO signed by Duterte placed government youth councils or the Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) front and center. SK leaders are encouraged to develop their own anti-teen pregnancy policies and support adolescent mothers.
The responsibilities of SK groups include educating the youth about sexual and reproductive health, even in non-formal education settings, normalizing respectful dialogue on the topic, and providing rights-based measures to help pregnant girls and young mothers continue and finish their education.
Other responsibilities are the following: creating vocational training opportunities, following up on young mothers who dropped out of school, and ensuring the functionality of anti-violence against women and children desks in barangays.
Meanwhile, the Commission on Population and Development (POPCOM) is trying its best to help those who are already mothers at a young age.
“We would like to give teenage mothers a fighting chance in life and be productive citizens after giving birth,” said POPCOM Chair Ernesto M. Pernia. “We are mobilizing local government units to advocate that those who are about to give birth be given access to family planning methods.”