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Young women deserve a future

/ 05:30 AM February 21, 2021

One would think, confined to their homes and isolated from their network of friends and acquaintances, not to mention menacing strangers, young women and girls 17 years old and below would be safe not just from coronavirus infection, but from other social ills as well.

These include sexual harassment, abuse, and exploitation. But what gives? From March 15 to Nov. 30 last year, the period covering lockdowns in the country, 13,923 cases of violence against women and children were reported, according to the Philippine Commission on Women (PCW). Of these, 4,747 were cases of violence against children, including sexual abuse. While the number was lower than the total in 2019, the PCW pointed out that “victims of abuse might have had fewer chances of being rescued because of pandemic restrictions.”

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The sexual abuse of girls within their homes—and possibly and probably from their fathers, brothers, uncles, and other men known to them—may explain the dismaying finding that the rates of early pregnancy are continuing to climb even in the midst of a pandemic.

Commission on Population and Development executive director Juan Antonio Perez III said that about 40 to 50 girls between 10 and 14 years give birth every week in the country. Of this number, Perez disclosed that two 10-year-olds, one from Metro Manila and the other from the Calabarzon region, were counted among the new mothers. Which prompts one to ask: How did these girls get pregnant when for the past year they were mostly kept on lockdown in their homes?

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As writer Ninotchka Rosca pointed out in a Facebook comment: “First, who are the men impregnating these kids, and what are their ages? This problem will never be resolved if people keep thinking it’s only a woman’s or girl’s issue. Five hundred years of telling girls not to do it but ignoring the men who do hasn’t cut it, is not cutting it, and won’t cut it.”

Last November, the survey firm Social Weather Stations found that, to 59 percent of Filipinos, early teenage pregnancy was “the most important problem of women today” in the country. The next most important perceived problems are physical violence and unexpected pregnancy, both at a far 11 percent. A total of 7 percent each said they believed sexual and emotional violence was a problem, while 4 percent said women’s most important problem was their inability to access family planning information and services. Certainly, that is trenchant commentary on the welfare of women and girls today and their travails on the reproductive health front.

Sen. Nancy Binay has filed a Senate resolution calling for greater government attention and action on the problem of early pregnancies, which she described as “a national emergency.” “This is the ninth year since 2011 that the (teenage pregnancy) rate has increased,” the senator noted, with one out of every 10 pregnancies here involving teenage mothers.

The problem goes beyond that of the young mother, her baby, and her family, though it has its most immediate and powerful impact on their lives. The World Health Organization reports that, globally, the leading causes of death among girls aged 15-19 years are complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. Then, too, there is the longer-lasting impact of unplanned motherhood. A young mother’s education, said Binay, “may end and her job prospects diminish. She becomes more vulnerable to poverty and exclusion, and her health often suffers.”

Per a report by the Philippine News Agency, summarizing economist Dr. Alejandro Herrin’s conclusion on the economic impact of early childbearing: “Adolescents who have begun childbearing were less likely to complete secondary education, resulting in a significant decrease in total lifetime earnings.” This has an impact in turn on the general economy, with the loss of otherwise productive income-earning and generating young people from the labor force. Imagine, too, the impact on the lives of their children who are doomed to live out a vicious cycle of poverty. Already, there are findings that babies born to young mothers are handicapped from the start by low birth weight and the prospect of poor health throughout childhood.

“If the increase of teenage pregnancy cases will not be resolved, it will add more burden to our health care system, our economy, and, in the long run, our plans for the next generation,” warned Sen. Risa Hontiveros, author of a pending “teenage pregnancy prevention” bill. Rep. Maria Lourdes Acosta-Alba, who filed a counterpart bill in the House, said that early pregnancy “takes away the future of our young girls and restricts them (from reaching) their full potential and making decisions that affect their own lives.”

It’s time the national and local governments recognized early pregnancy and its causes (including those who cause it) as, in truth, a “national emergency.” For what affects girls affects us all.

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