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Bid the dream goodbye

OVERCROWDED. A street in Quiapo, Manila. EDWIN BACASMAS

THE TERM “demographic dividend” is used to refer to that time in a country’s history when the rate of population growth slows down enough to allow for the emergence of a young, productive sector of the population to jump-start development.

This is the moment that marked similar transitions in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, among our neighbors. This allowed them to hop, skip and jump to First World status led by young, productive citizens, no longer burdened by a “heavy dependency ratio” of the aging and the very young, spurring economic growth and development.

Former president Noynoy Aquino voiced, more than once, his belief that the Philippines was on the verge of, if not actually enjoying, our own demographic dividend. He cited, among other factors, the burgeoning outsourcing industry which employed a growing number of young adults. But the demographic dividend, so analysts and demographers remind us, has long been awaited, as far back as the 1970s and 1980s, and still the much-anticipated transition has eluded us.

Perhaps the biggest factor holding back our march to First World status is our still-rapidly-growing population, and the many factors that hold back the needed transition. Among these is our alarming adolescent pregnancy rate, which experts say is the highest in all of Southeast Asia. “Should the pattern continue,” says a study, “the country will have more younger dependents that are unwilling (or unable—RJD) to work, and a much older society dependent on youths to carry them through their senior years.”

The 2013 National Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) found that one in ten Filipino female teenagers aged 15-19 (who make up 10 percent of the population) has begun childbearing, while 8 percent are already mothers and another 2 percent are pregnant with their first child. Among young adult women aged 20-24, 43 percent are already mothers and 4 percent are pregnant with their first child.

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THE future of these young mothers and their children seems murky at best, since many of them have had to stop going to school, which severely limits their options for gainful and meaningful employment and for the education (not to mention the feeding and care) of their families.

This is borne out by statistics, as contained in the NDHS: Early pregnancy is more common among young adult women with less education than among those with higher education; early childbearing is most common in poor areas of the country; and the proportion of young adult women who have begun childbearing is higher among those belonging to poor households. (Subsequent pregnancies are all too common because poor girls would have little knowledge of, or access to, contraception.)

Given these realities, which have been widely known for years, it’s all the more puzzling why authorities—those in the public health and medical fields, but also those in the legal arena—refuse to meet them head-on with programs, policies and laws that would answer the urgent needs of men and women of reproductive age, but especially those still in their teens.

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RECENTLY, the Supreme Court issued a ruling refusing to lift the temporary restraining order on the use and distribution by the Department of Health of contraceptive implants. Instead, the Supreme Court commanded the Food and Drug Administration to conduct tests to see if the contraceptive products have abortifacient side effects, as alleged by the petitioner, the Alliance for the Family Foundation Philippines. The TRO was issued more than a year ago.

This provoked the Forum for Family Planning and Development to “lament” the high court’s decision, saying it “sets back the full implementation of the RH Law despite the call of the  President … for its full implementation.”

“We cannot emphasize enough the fact that it is our poor women and couples who are burdened by the effects” of barriers and challenges to the implementation of the law, said Ben de Leon, president of the Forum. “Every day that this TRO is in effect, hundreds of women remain at risk from health issues that are otherwise easily preventable. When would be the right time to lift the TRO? When more poor women are dead?”

There is a need to “act fast and vigorously on family planning,” De Leon said, pointing out that while the issue has been remanded to the FDA, “it would have been better for the Filipino people had the Supreme Court lifted the TRO [first].”

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INDEED, the issue has life-and-death consequences most especially for women—and then also for the babies they bear (the chances for a newborn’s death increase the younger the mother is).

Young women are at an especially vulnerable place. Long before the question of implants and contraceptives reached the Supreme Court, they had been deprived of essential services from government health centers. This was a result of cultural factors, including hostility and indifference from health workers and even parents. But the barriers became insurmountable when, hearing the constitutionality of the RH Law, the Supreme Court amended the law and said government health workers could not provide family planning information or services to adolescents without written permission from a parent.

But there are also risks for the nation as a whole, since continuing pressure from a growing population holds back our efforts to achieve economic development and the advantages that come with it: greater access to education and health, better nutrition, more and more meaningful and stable jobs at home, and social stability. Without acting with dispatch and decisiveness, we can bid our dream of a demographic dividend goodbye.

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