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An open love letter

/ 12:10 AM February 14, 2014

Dear honorable justices of the Supreme Court, I look at Valentine’s Day as another commercialized strategy to get people to spend, this time driven by “love.”  But I might as well ride on Cupid and his arrows to remind ourselves about the need to talk about nobler forms of love that include caring for our children, families, communities, the nation.

The word going around is that you will be deciding soon on the Reproductive Health Act, which has been held in abeyance because of several petitions pending in the Supreme Court. Much as I would like to see an early decision on these petitions, may I suggest that before you go into final deliberations on the law, you visit one of the government hospitals with a large maternity ward and talk with the teenage mothers.  There will be no lack of such young mothers, whatever day of the week, whatever time of the day, that you visit.

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The stereotype of the teenage mother is that of a girl precociously mature, flirtatious, seductive.  What you will find are scrawny girls (I cannot use the term “women” because they really are kids, girls), many malnourished and anemic.  Many will be staring blankly into space, listless but anxious and bewildered.

Look, too, for the fathers and you will find a few teenagers.  Again, the stereotype of the teenage father is some good-looking street-smart jock.  What you will find are boys only slightly better nourished than their girlfriends or wives.  Some will act tough, smoking away and using their cellphones, but talk with them and you will find they are desperate, overwhelmed by what’s happening, and unable to think even of the days ahead, after the baby is brought home.

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From time to time, you will hear a girl calling out for her own mother as she goes into labor, and you realize this is one whose boyfriend has disappeared, or was sent away by her own family.

680,000 reasons for RH

The maternity wards only offer glimpses into the extent of the problem of teenage parenting. Just last week, the University of the Philippines Population Institute released the results of the 4th Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Study (YAFS).  This is a nationwide survey covering 19,000 youths aged 15 to 24 and dealing with many important issues including sexuality, Internet use, smoking and drugs.

In the 2002 YAFS, researchers found that 6.3 percent of female respondents aged 15 to 19 were already mothers, meaning had given birth or were pregnant when interviewed.  In absolute figures, that meant about 262,000 teenage mothers.

In the 2013 YAFS, the percentage of teenage mothers aged 15 to 19 increased to 13.6 percent.  In absolute figures, because the population had risen, the absolute number for teenage mothers is now a staggering 683,000 or almost three times the figure 10 years earlier.

Right there, I will say that’s at least 683,000 reasons why we need the RH Law.  I say “at least” because many of these girls already have two, three, even four children.

Clearly, between 2002 and 2013 many things happened in the Philippines to cause this increase in teenage mothers—a trend which, I have to point out, runs counter to what’s happening in much of the rest of the world, in both developed and developing countries.

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I know that some of you are opposed to the RH Law because of its provisions for comprehensive sexuality education in schools.  Some of you have probably been convinced by anti-RH lobbyists who say this sexuality education will only drive young people to have early sex.

The anti-RH lobbyists argue that sex education should be done at home, and I will agree with them, but only because right now most schools are totally silent when it comes to issues of sexuality, and teachers too scared to talk about “it.”

Clueless

I will argue that the RH Law, by bringing sexuality education into schools, will prevent teenage pregnancies.  Despite so many teenage pregnancies, young people can be incredibly clueless about how babies are made.  Talk with those teenage parents in the hospitals and you will be amused, then disturbed, to hear them talk about their misconceptions: “You can’t get pregnant the first time” or “Don’t go in completely and you’re safe.” Many girls, including those who already have children, don’t even know about fertile and infertile days in a menstrual cycle.

Beyond lectures on the facts around sex, sexuality education is also important for imparting life skills.  This includes dealing with crushes and puppy love, first love and relationships, the need for respect for each other, and learning to say no (and “no” means “no”).  For the poor especially, sexuality education must include a more realistic view of what “love” means. Many young people from impoverished households look to their boyfriends and girlfriends, even to early parenting, as an escape from misery.

The YAFS statistics also paint a picture of a wired generation. So, while most Filipino homes think they are protecting their children by keeping silent about sex, even as their television sets blare out telenovelas with adult themes and their kids roam the Internet, through computers and their smart phones, making friends or watching pornography.

Even worse, there are households where these teenagers, and even younger siblings, are pushed by their own parents into web-based child sex tourism or live child porn.  The Philippines is now one of the world’s most active suppliers of this child porn.  Without sexuality education in schools, children will be used by their parents; they will think it is their obligation to do the live shows to support their parents and families. These are not isolated cases: Several reports show that entire barangays can be involved in these businesses.

Let’s return to the plight of children growing up with teenage parents. The United Nations Population Fund’s  latest yearbook cites many studies showing the long-term cyclical consequences of adolescent parenting: The children are at higher risk for stunting, for being underweight, for suffering from infectious diseases and, quite simply, for dying before the age of five.

The survivors will not be that much luckier. Many of the young mothers (and fathers) will stop school, which means they and their children will be trapped in poverty.  The parents will grow weary early in life, leaving the children on their own.  These kids stand a higher risk of dropping out of school early, of running into conflict with the law, and of becoming teenage moms and dads themselves.

While RH services have been weak in the Philippines for the longest time, it was only in the last 10 years where we saw active opposition to the few services that were available (for example, the city of Manila banning family planning services) and attempts to block reforms such as the RH Law.  The statistics are clear in showing the consequences—a warning of even more difficult times ahead if we do not respond to the problems of early parenting.

If we continue this way, future generations of Filipinos will hold us accountable. They will look at all our talk about love of children and love of family as rhetoric, as meaningless as Valentine’s Day hype.

* * *

E-mail: mtan@inquirer.com.ph

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TAGS: column, Michael l. tan, reproductive health law
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