The young and the resilient
At the closing of the 7th Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health Rights on Friday, students from Cecilio Apostol Elementary School made up one of the performing groups.
They came up on stage in their school uniforms and, at first tentatively then with growing energy, sang and danced to pop tunes like the Carpenters’ “Top of the World” and OPM standards like “Mamang Sorbetero.”
The children looked happy to be performing onstage, but I suddenly felt myself tearing up. As always, the children were the picture of joie de vivre, just being themselves, and, as all Filipinos are, driven to joyful expression just by the music and the appreciation of the audience. But I knew that, 10 or even just five years from now for the older children, they would be facing the very same challenges that older people had been earnestly and passionately, angrily and combatively, discussing the previous days.
“You are what we are fighting for,” I wanted to tell the young people. I had just come the day before from a Pasay City court where a lawyer, I’m sure with the best, if misguided, intentions, argued that a conference featuring discussions about abortion—among hundreds of other topics having to do with sex and reproductive health and rights—would do “harm” to Filipino children.
Apparently, it was his and his supporters’ belief that just talking about sex was tantamount to “teaching” children about it. And that, once taught, Filipino children would come rushing out of their homes or classrooms and be driven by lust and curiosity to try sex for themselves, long before they were ready.
Did the children of Cecilio Apostol know that to some of their elders they were nothing but future sex maniacs and fornicators?
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I wanted to gather the girls and boys in an embrace and assure them that the future held better, brighter tomorrows for them. I wanted to tell them that more people, not just in the Philippines but in the Asia and the Pacific region, and around the world in fact, were wishing them well.
And not just that, but that all these committed youth activists and adult government officials, researchers, scientists, social workers, health professionals, NGO workers and, yes, even media people, believed in their potential for good and for doing good, and were working to fight the naysayers and censors, and to find new ways to create the better world they deserved.
For sure, problems are a-plenty.
Her Royal Highness Gusti Pembayun, a princess of the royal family of the special district of Jogjakarta in Indonesia, said the Asia Pacific region “contains 60 percent of the world’s youth, or 750 million young people aged 15 to 24 years.”
And while such a huge number of youth held a lot of promise, “young people today face many challenges.”
“Fifty percent of [new] HIV infections are believed to be [among] the 15-24 age groups,” said the princess, while “early pregnancy and its attendant risks of high maternal and child mortality also remain a problem in the region.”
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In the “Manila Challenge” issued at the end of the conference, young people were urged “to become advocates and promote sexual and reproductive health and rights among their ranks, to respect sexual preference and diversity of everyone, and to make informed and safe sexual choices.”
But how can young people make “informed and safe sexual choices” when their parents, and many other authority figures around them believe that keeping young people ignorant and naïve best serves their interests?
Young people face many perils, out in the streets and among friends and strangers, but also (and more tragically) at home, among relatives and adult friends of the family. It makes sense to arm young people with awareness and knowledge as early as possible in life. Beginning with knowing the “proper” names of body parts, to remove the shame, stigma and malice inherent in words like “flower” for vagina, or “bird” for penis. Then moving on to teaching children the integrity of their bodies, and to report when an adult touches them in ways that make them feel uncomfortable.
Telling young people—in stages, in ways and words appropriate for their age and experience—about how babies are made (and scrap the stork and the angel coming from Heaven, please!) is also helpful. Not just to teach them the essentials of biology, but also to make them comfortable with their bodies and with the notion of sex, removing the shame, embarrassment and curiosity that may lead to early sexual experimentation and experience, or else repression and guilt.
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Adelle Chua, columnist and opinion editor of Manila Standard Today who was part of the media committee for the conference, wrote a piece in the conference newsletter where she spoke of the personal roots of her support and commitment for the RH cause. “I was 18 years old when I gave birth to my first child. I was also still a child then. Nobody talked to me about adolescent RH because these things rarely get discussed in families,” she wrote.
Adelle considers herself “lucky” that, through the help of supportive relatives, she was able to “complete my studies, get a career, and assert later on the kind of life I wanted for myself and for my children.”
With the right breaks—and the right supportive environment and enlightened policies—youth, like Adelle was then, don’t have to see the world, along with their dreams, ambitions and potential, come to a crashing end. Young people are so fragile in their promise and potential. But they are also remarkably resilient and resourceful. They just need the help and support of adults who care about, and, more important, respect, them.
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