Philippines promises to curb early pregnancies, poverty in population summit

Socioeconomic planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia says the government is intent on curbing teen pregnancies

NAIROBI -- One in 10 Filipino girls are getting pregnant. The Philippines faced this truth as it joined a global population and development conference where it committed to reduce poverty and go all out in fully implementing sexual and reproductive health policies amid high pregnancy incidence among girls aged 15-19, now a national concern requiring urgent intervention.

In a country statement, Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia committed before world leaders and planners at the just-concluded Nairobi Summit on ICPD25 that the government will focus on sexual and reproductive health policies, with heightened attention to maternal and infant health programs such as the first 1,000 days support initiative for pregnant women and children. The government, he said, will raise investments to reduce poverty in the country with a population of 107 million.
Pernia said the Philippines is gearing up to implement programs to quash teen pregnancies, as teenage mothers give birth to 24 babies every hour, or one newborn every 2.5 minutes, according to the 2017 National Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS).
The summit marked the 25th year of the International Conference on Population and Development that took place in Cairo in 1994, where governments adopted a program of action recognizing that reproductive health, women's empowerment and gender equality are crucial to sustainable development.

Hosted in the Kenyan capital, it assembled 8,000 world leaders, representatives of non-governmental, civil society and community organizations, business leaders, youth and people who have a stake in reproductive and sexual health and rights to review the program of action adopted 25 years ago.

The Philippines was among 179 countries that committed in the 1994 Cairo summit to end preventable childbirth-related deaths, stop violence and harmful practices against women and girls and meet the wishes of women who want to use contraception and family planning.
In an interview during the conference, Pernia, who is also chief of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), said the government has put up P4 billion for the purchase of family planning and contraceptive commodities and their distribution to communities. The money, which he said will increase until 2022, will also cover logistics and activities on the ground that include training of health workers, population officers and community organizers.

“These are demand generation activities to stimulate interest and promote understanding of why men and women should have access to information and commodities on family planning and contraception,” he said. “We will go full blast nationwide starting on the ground, on the local levels.”

Many adolescent girls have stopped schooling because they have begun child-bearing

Neil Lomibao, chairperson of the youth advisory board of the United Nations Philippines who was a delegate in the conference, said the government should continuously engage young people and other sectors in the periphery and being left behind, but who should be put in the core of the programs and priorities of the government.

"The government should make sure that even the farthest communities are reached and provided with their human rights. And all marginalized communities should be prioritized and protected," he said, referring to indigenous people, farmers, fisherfolk, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ community.

In the lead-up to the Nairobi Summit, Pernia called on the government to declare teen pregnancies a national emergency as the huge numbers have become a national concern. He said early pregnancies will weigh down the country’s public health system and the capacities of households, and will affect the priority program of the NEDA to lessen the poverty rate from 18 per cent to at least 14 per cent in the next three years.

The 2017 NDHS conducted by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) recorded nearly 200,000 girls aged 15-19 who get pregnant each year: 500 babies born each day or 24 babies per hour. One in 10 girls aged 15-19 have begun childbearing: 8 per cent were already mothers and 2.0 per cent were already pregnant with their first child.

The NDHS said there are 1.7 million women and girls who give birth every year -- 94 babies per hour or three babies born per minute. Most of these pregnancies are unintended and unplanned. They include childbirths by girls aged 10-19, the age group which comprises 10 per cent of the total female population.

“Our population has such a bigger base now of young people, and it is worrisome if they just end up having children and not be able to develop into productive adults,” Pernia said. The PSA study also said one of three young people is engaging in early, unprotected sex.

Lomibao decried the situation of Filipino youth. "Young people do not have access to a standard quality education around the country, quality and accessible healthcare services, and proper information. Some don't even know about their rights, I came across one young girl, and she didn't even know that she is already being violated.”

“Unmet need” is another compounding problem, according to Pernia, who said one out of three women want to plan their pregnancies but they end up having another child. These women want to practice birth spacing or want to stop childbearing but do not have the means to do so.

The NEDA chief said addressing unmet need would avert induced abortions, which affect an estimated 25 abortions per 1,000 women who experience unintended pregnancies. “Because women fail to plan their pregnancies, they become pregnant, which they didn’t plan, so they induce abortion,” he said.

The Department of Health has said 12 per cent of all maternal deaths are due to abortion as it called for a multi-sectoral effort to combat teenage pregnancy.

Young women register during a family planning event in Zamboanga City

In 2018, the use of contraceptives was at 45 per cent, Pernia said, adding that the government wants to bring up to 65 per cent by 2022. Citing the survey, he said there should be 27 million women of reproductive ages 15-49 at the end of 2018. Based on this estimate, the unmet need for family planning would mean roughly more than eight million women.

Pernia’s statement of commitment at the summit was as bold as that of the other countries that recommitted to the consensus 25 years ago when the ICPD in Cairo shifted the discussion of population from counting numbers to a program that puts human rights, especially those of women and girls, at the center of development programs.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), a co-organizer of the summit along with the governments of Denmark and Kenya, said signatory countries have to accelerate their work as the goals should be fulfilled by 2030, the same deadline set by the UN Sustainable Development Goals for human development.

One of the strongest commitments came from Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta who said his country has taken the leadership in agreeing with the governments of Uganda, Tanzania, Somalia and Ethiopia and with religious and cultural leaders to eliminate child marriages and end the practice of female genital mutilation in this generation.

UNFPA executive director Dr. Natalia Kanem said countries have made strides in improving the situation of women and girls. But the vision is still far from reality, and that journey that began 25 years ago in Cairo is far from over, she said, as she asked countries to “finish (their) unfinished business.”

“Twenty-five years ago, the world agreed, by consensus, that sexual and reproductive health is a human right. The world agreed that no mother should die while giving life. The world agreed that women are the equal of men, and that gender-based violence and discrimination have no place in the modern world. Yet today, when we take stock of the progress made, we see that the world has failed to deliver on the promise of that consensus,” she said.

In the country statement, Pernia said that the Philippines has made improvements in policy-making, such as the passage of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law (Republic Act 10354) but this has yet to take off in implementation.

He said President Rodrigo Duterte issued in 2017 Executive Order No. 12 that tasked local governments to implement the “zero unmet need for modern family planning” program for poor households by 2018 and beyond. In October 2019, the Universal Health Care (UHC) Law or RA 11223 that provides equitable and affordable health care was enacted.

He also shared to the world that the Philippines enjoys a favorable 8th rank in the global gender equality index of the 2018 World Economic Forum’s list of 149 countries for closing 80 per cent of its gender gap in the areas of educational reach, labor, political empowerment, health and survival.

But Pernia said the country needs to convince more women and men to use contraception and for adolescent girls and boys to be educated about understanding their changing bodies, to be knowledgeable about sex and sexuality and to adopt responsible behaviors. He also said men and boys need to be educated about respect and equal rights the same way that girls and women are being empowered.

He had earlier called for the enactment of a teenage pregnancy prevention bill in Congress.

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