Ready to tackle teen sexuality?
This year’s celebration of the International Day of the Girl Child (Oct. 11 and 12) focused on the call to end child marriage, a practice that remains legal and customary in some parts of the Philippines. Inevitably, the discussions also highlighted the alarming rate of teenage pregnancies in the country. Just a few weeks ago, the Commission on Population and Development (PopCom) revealed an astonishing statistic: Every week, about 40 to 50 Filipino children between the ages 10 and 14 give birth.
Concerned advocates and legislators have been pushing for various measures to curb this trend, including raising the age of consent and passing a teen pregnancy prevention law. But amid these potential changes, a fundamental question remains: Are Filipino elders ready to guide teenagers on sexuality and reproductive health?
Much of the desired development in this area depends on a shift in attitude among parents and community leaders. To guide young Filipinos away from dangerous early pregnancies, our families and communities have to overcome their own barriers in communicating with adolescents and addressing their reproductive health needs.
One such barrier is that this topic continues to be taboo in domestic settings. Typically, parents either find it difficult to provide counsel to their children or refuse to broach the subject altogether. Add to that the stigma fed by some cultural and religious traditions, insisting that evidence-based measures for reproductive health are shameful or evil.
In such a restrained environment, abstinence may be the only thing shielding adolescents from sexual risks. And when that shield fails—as is often the case—our minors are left exposed to the many health dangers and major economic impact of early pregnancies, not to mention the host of other consequences of early sexual activity.
An abstinence-only approach also fails to protect children who are abused, manipulated, or exploited. As long as parents hesitate to talk about it and traditional beliefs hinder victims from accessing available services (such as pre-natal and post-partum checks), these children will remain physically, financially, and emotionally vulnerable.
The Department of Education is working to integrate Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) in the classroom, hoping to impart age-appropriate and culture-sensitive lessons to students toward being sensible about their sexuality. The PopCom supports this, noting that one of the provisions of our Reproductive Health Law is “age- and development-appropriate reproductive health education for adolescents in formal and non-formal educational settings.”
Still, the inclusion of sexuality education in our schools is met with objections from some groups, particularly from religious organizations that fear that a “standardized” CSE conflicts with their religious identity. Last month, such objections prompted the Senate to defer plenary debates on the “Prevention of Adolescent Pregnancy Act.” This illustrated how, despite the clear need for reproductive health education for young Filipinos, certain sectors of society still have the influence to hamper it.
Over and above that, we remember that schools are only secondary to the family unit when it comes to educating adolescents. Children themselves look to their parents for counsel. A 2017 baseline study from Save the Children Philippines found that “very young adolescents” (ages 10 to 14) preferred to get guidance on sexuality and reproductive health from their own mothers. Yet according to Dr. Miel Nora, the organization’s technical adviser on Adolescent Sexuality and Reproductive Health, parents themselves are reluctant to discuss it.
Parental figures must be equipped with awareness, rationality, and receptiveness, ready to converse with their children about sexuality in a suitable way and creating a home environment where the children feel safe opening up their concerns to their parents.
The early pregnancy crisis is not something we can just shush or close our eyes to. That’s what we’ve done for decades—staying tight-lipped and hesitant about reproductive health—and it obviously has not worked. Now, our children need their elders to do more than just clutch pearls. The adults need to get past confined attitudes and move toward evidence-based solutions.
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