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Population and progress

When I started writing about population issues, during the term of the late President Cory Aquino in the late 1980s, the estimate of most experts, given the prevailing fertility rate, was one million Filipinos being born each year.

The current estimate ranges from three to five million a year, given that the number of women of childbearing age has increased, and the number of children being born to them has not decreased significantly.

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But the increase in the annual number of births has not been even across all classes. Filipino women in the upper and upper-middle classes have on average one to three children, meaning they have reached the same level of fertility as most women in the developed world. But Filipino women in the lower economic classes—those who can least afford to meet the health, education and shelter needs of their families, and the most numerous—are on average having five to seven children. This, despite their expressed need, seen in public opinion surveys year after year, for smaller families, more access to effective and available means of family planning, and greater choice and decision-making power in the matter of planning their reproductive lives.

Now comes news that within the year, at least by the third or fourth quarter of 2014, the population of the Philippines will reach 100 million, a mind-boggling figure by any measure.

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Quoting Population Commission executive director Juan Antonio Perez III, Sheila Crisostomo, the indefatigable health reporter of The Philippine Star, says the growth in population is expected to “(put) a strain on the country’s resources.” That’s putting it mildly.

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Just commuting within Metro Manila, one is bound to confront the consequences of our ballooning population, from traffic jams to uncollected garbage, urchins running wild even on highways, to burgeoning slum areas.

Perez notes that to support the rising population, “more investments in social services such as health and education and infrastructure would be required.”

Health Undersecretary Janette Garin, who as a congresswoman shepherded the Reproductive Health Law through the legislature, sounded the alarm. “The government will always be there to provide social services, but it’s not unlimited. There is a limit to our funding.”

Of course, the elephant in the room in this discussion is the RH Law, which is still lying within the bowels of the Supreme Court where it awaits “release” from the TRO imposed on it.

“If you look at the situation, the desire to plan the family is there, but the question is that the affordability is not there,” Garin told Crisostomo. “This is where the law comes in, to make sure poverty will not get into generational (traits), that you won’t pass it on to the next generations.”

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And even if, by some stroke of luck, the Supreme Court declares the RH Law constitutional tomorrow, it will take some time before the worse effects of our burgeoning population are eradicated.

Perez says it may take as long as five years before the so-called “demographic dividend,” the benefits to be gained from a young, productive and dynamic populace, are felt.

The fertility rate, for one, has to be reduced from 3.1 births to 2.1 births for every woman of childbearing age, something Perez sees happening between five and 10 years from now.

And this is possible only if we are able to increase the rate of modern contraceptive use from 49 percent to 65, or 70 percent, a rate already prevailing among most of our neighbors.

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Is it any wonder, then that despite our growing reputation as the next economic “tiger” of Asia, the Philippines still lags behind most of Southeast Asia in terms of fundamental indicators, such as health, education and environmental sustainability?

All this is by way of background to an international event taking place in Manila from Jan. 21-24, the Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights (APCRSHR).

The conference in Manila comes full circle, having begun here in 2001, and held every two years hence in Thailand, Malaysia, India, China and Indonesia. The 2016 edition will take place in Burma (Myanmar).

For this year’s conference, the theme seeks to look back and evaluate the progress made in

addressing the reproductive health needs of the region, and make more strategic plans for the next few years.

The APCRSHR, to take place at the PICC, comes at a significant period. It has been 20 years since the International Conference of Population and Development in Cairo, and this year, governments around the world will evaluate the accomplishments made since this paradigm-shifting conference took place. Next year, too, the world’s governments will review the progress made in meeting commitments to the Millennium Development Goals. The conference, then, can be viewed as both a summing up and preparatory process to evaluating whether our governments fulfilled their promises to the people, and to tracking the gains, failures and promises.

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Keynoting the opening plenary of the conference will be Nafis Sadik, special envoy of the UN secretary general for HIV/AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, and former United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) executive director; and Nobuku Horibe, director of the UNFPA Asia and Pacific regional office. Health Secretary Enrique Ona will welcome the delegates.

Being held alongside the APCRSHR is the Youth Conference which will focus on issues confronting young people in the region, particularly on sexual and reproductive health. No less than UNFPA executive director Babatunde Osotimehin will address the youth gathering, together with Sen. Pia Cayetano.

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