The numbers alone paint an alarming picture. Between the years 2000 and 2010, pointed out Carmelita Ericta, administrator of the National Statistics Office, the number of babies born to teenage mothers (aged 15-19 years) rose from 7.1 percent to 11.7 percent.
In the same period, the proportion of all maternal deaths among teenagers doubled from 5 percent to 10 percent, while around 18 percent of teenage girls reported experiencing physical and sexual violence.
That isn’t even the entire picture. Young mothers are having their babies and raising them in large part by themselves, or with the help of their parents or families. This is because the number of marriages has declined in the past decade, with the proportion of teenage couples currently standing at 1.8 percent.
It is a difficult enough situation for a teenager finding herself pregnant or responsible for a newborn, even as she struggles with issues of identity and autonomy. But add to this the “stigma” attached to premarital or premature pregnancy, and factors like lack of education, absence of employable skills or relationship troubles, and we have a life gone awry multiplied thousands of times.
“It’s about time this issue is discussed thoroughly,” said Percival Cendaña, a commissioner of the National Youth Commission, at the press conference organized by The Forum for Family Planning and Development Inc. “Teenage pregnancy is a ‘silent crisis’ in this country, for while the trend is waning in the rest of the world, in the Philippines the number of teenage pregnancies is on the rise.”
Getting pregnant in one’s teens, added Cendaña, can have lifelong consequences. While the Department of Education has already issued guidelines that pregnant public school students should not be penalized by suspension or expulsion, Cendaña said it’s another story with private schools, especially, I think, Catholic high schools. In many cases, the administrators would either expel a pregnant student outright (even if the father of her child is exempt from sanctions) or refuse permission for her to march during graduation. “This has an impact on the social mobility of young women,” Cendaña pointed out, “and affects their ability to find a job and nurture and educate their own children.”
Indeed, separate studies have shown that teenage pregnancy goes beyond a single lifetime, since the daughters and sons of adolescent parents “inherit” their lack of access to education and jobs and end up as teenage parents themselves.
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In response, said Cendaña, schools, families and civil society groups (including Churches) should provide young people “comprehensive sexuality education.” This, he said, goes beyond “just” sex education, but also “values formation paired with scientific information” to help young people “make the right decisions.”
Global studies, he added, have long shown and determined that “young people who are made aware of the implications of sexual activity will postpone their sexual debut.”
In their visits around the country talking to young people in and outside school, added Cendaña, he has encountered many of the myths that prove “how lack of access to information has affected so many youth.”
For one, he said, so many teenagers “still believe that if a girl stands up right after sex, she will not get pregnant, or if she pees right after, her partner’s sperm will not be able to get her pregnant.” Laughable, true, but “with uninformed young people getting their information about sex from other, similarly uninformed young people,” the misconceptions tend to spread and persist.
Other reasons for the rising levels of adolescent pregnancy, said Cendaña, could be the “evolving nature of women’s bodies,” with menarche or the onset of menstruation occurring earlier in life and possibly before a girl could be properly oriented about this stage of life. Then there is “the changing social context,” with speedy and easily broken relationships becoming the norm, and “the high level of physical attraction” obtaining among young people.
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Adolescent pregnancy happens to be the theme of World Population Day, which is observed worldwide on July 11 (Thursday).
In his message, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the UN Population Fund, stressed that “Adolescent pregnancy is not just a health issue, it is a development issue. It is deeply rooted in poverty, gender inequality, violence, child and forced marriage, power imbalances between adolescent girls and their male partners, lack of education, and the failure of systems and institutions to protect their rights.”
So it was serendipitous, too, that the press conference took place a day before the first hearings on the constitutionality of the Reproductive Health Law, which will be discussed in the Supreme Court today.
Among the matters to be debated at the high tribunal is the right of young people to more and better sexuality education, which some of the petitioners have decried as a “violation” of parents’ right to exercise authority over their children, including their right to inform (or not) their children about their bodies, their sexuality and their responsibilities.
Survey after survey, including a recent one conducted by the Social Weather Stations and sponsored by The Forum, has shown that, by and large, young people believe in the importance of sexuality education and in fact clamor for it.
And as the experience of the past decade has shown, when we ignore our responsibilities as parents and adults, we abandon our children to unplanned, mistimed pregnancy and a life sentence of poverty and missed chances. We reap what we (fail to) sow.