Hopes and fears for young people
American columnist Ellen Goodman once wrote that “just whispering ‘teenage sex’ is like yelling ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.”
Indeed, even in this day and age, in the time of Tinder, Grindr and other dating apps, slut-shaming and file-sharing of nude shots, and even a whole new online industry sexually exploiting children, their parents or these children with their parents — adolescent sexuality and the thought of it, the mere contemplation of it, is still liable to get people running, screaming and hyperventilating.
Studies and reports on the state of adolescent health and sexuality in the Philippines show how culture, religion and biology shape and determine the desires, behavior and illusions of young people especially when it comes to romance, sexuality and what we old fogeys used to describe as “boy-girl relationships.”
The real experiences of young people also flesh out the complex web of personal and peer relationships, social norms and expectations, and the shifting sands of sexuality and perception in themselves, their families, relationships and in society. And with concerned adults, young leaders have also sought ways to get government to respond to the call for laws, policies and programs that promote young people’s health, respond to their need for more and better information and services, respect their rights and identities, and widen the world views of providers, educators and the larger society.
Indeed, there remains much to be done. A review of research done on adolescent sexuality shows that, among other findings: The adolescent birth rate in the country is high and the rate of decline very slow; that many of these pregnancies and births are unintended; that the rate of unprotected sex is a better predictor of the adolescent birth rate than sexual activity per se; though usage rates are rising, more than half of sexually active adolescents still have no access to modern contraceptives; policies encouraging the use of contraceptives by adolescents have regressed; and guidelines on the promotion of adolescent sexual health are focused on abstinence and hardly mention modern contraceptives. Service providers and institutions have also been found to have failed in their observance of young people’s rights to privacy, confidentiality and dignity.
It’s obvious, we need to walk our talk. The reproductive health law may be considered a triumph for advocates and champions, but the implementation on the ground leaves much to be desired and many attitudinal, religious and familial factors work to deny adolescents their right to information, services and respect.
We can do much to help our young people overcome the barriers to their full enjoyment of sexual health and their right to self-expression. We adults are all parents in this case, whether we be teachers, advisers, counselors, nongovernment organization (NGO) leaders, policymakers. “The central struggle of parenthood,” Goodman writes, “is to let our hopes for our children outweigh our fears.” We cannot let our fears stop us from doing all we can to attain our hopes!
This is an edited version of the closing remarks delivered at the National Conference on Understanding Adolescent Sexuality on June 18-19 where, in the final exchanges between the participants—Department of Education officials, teachers, student leaders, heads of NGOs and concerned authorities—there emerged a welter of possible actions and policies to protect and promote young people’s reproductive health.
I was particularly impressed by the number of initiatives at the regional and provincial levels, from holding focus group discussions among youths at risk of acquiring HIV/AIDS to training teachers on the handling of the comprehensive sexuality education modules. Young people themselves proved to be especially effective advocates and peer educators, being credible sources of information and shared experience.
Despite the passage of the reproductive health law in 2012 and its survival of challenges before the Supreme Court, the sexuality education component of the law remains at the piloting stage. This leaves young men and women (and their children) vulnerable to the challenges of early sex, including unwanted parenthood. When will our hopes for our children outweigh our fears of their sexuality?
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