As young as 14
The Valentine’s Day report in this paper’s Across the Nation section might have seemed lighthearted by its title: “After storm, Tacloban pregnancies rise.” But the apparent increase in the number of pregnancies among teenagers in the city is in fact worrisome, illustrating as it does an aspect of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” that has yet to be addressed: A sense of desperation and an urgent need for comfort among the young after a disaster that drastically rearranged many lives.
There are no official numbers to back the phenomenon reported by the Inquirer’s Joey A. Gabieta. But Catherine Aguilos, who owns a birthing clinic a stone’s throw away from the bunkhouses built for Yolanda-displaced families in the Caibaan district in Leyte has observed a near-doubling: “Before, there were only an average of 18 deliveries in my clinic per month. Now I have at least 30 deliveries each month.”
Consider the case of “Jennalyn,” who is 15 years old and seven months pregnant. She has dropped out of school and is now living with her boyfriend, 18 and jobless, with his family in a bunkhouse. Jennalyn acknowledges that at her age, she should be in school and enjoying the life of a teenager. “But I guess I love him, or maybe I just need someone to talk to.”
And the youngest among the mothers who recently delivered their babies at the Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center, the region’s biggest public hospital, is a 14-year-old.
As many as 108 women living in the Caibaan bunkhouses are pregnant, according to camp manager Rowena Paraiso. “While it is their personal decision [to be mothers], what we do is explain to them the responsibilities of being a parent,” she says.
Clinic owner Aguilos says she told her young wards “to slow it down, take some time before getting pregnant again, or observe birth spacing” because frequent childbirth “will not be good for their health.” That’s good advice, but a systematic and integrated approach needs to be taken to address the matter.
An increase in the number of pregnancies after a disaster is not unexpected, according to psychiatrist June Pagaduan-Lopez, who has been helping typhoon survivors in Tacloban to come to terms with their traumatic experience. “Sexual aggressiveness” is observed behavior among male survivors, leading to a rise in pregnancies. “They have nothing much to do,” and no liquor and no gambling even, Pagaduan-Lopez notes. “That is why they become sexually aggressive.”
And while it can be said that many of the female survivors in their teens and early twenties seek comfort and security, it can also be argued that this vulnerability among them and the aggression among males could lead to unreported cases of sexual assault.
This is not the first time such a phenomenon has happened. In the wake of Tropical Storm “Sendong” in 2011, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs expressed concern about the “unplanned and unwanted pregnancies” in the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan. It does not even have to be a disaster of a single occurrence, but one of a more prolonged nature. In 2009, the UN Population Fund said that Muslim girls were forced into marriages and pregnancies in evacuation centers after being driven from their homes by armed conflict. Indeed, young people in disaster areas are driven to cope with emotional and psychological distress in whatever way they can, often turning to urgent coupling to ease their troubled condition.
It’s fairly obvious that counseling, particularly of young people, is an urgent necessity in communities that have suffered a calamity as devastating as Yolanda. It’s an imperative that should be included among the continuing relief and rehab activities conducted by health and social welfare authorities. Family planning sessions, including the risks of premarital sex and the negative impact of early pregnancy on the health of both mothers and infants, were admittedly among the interventions that were relegated to the back burner in the efforts to focus on the survivors’ immediate needs. The result has come home to roost.
Last May, in fact, psychologist Ma. Lourdes Carandang warned that the government needed to deploy more psychologists to the disaster-stricken areas of Leyte and Samar. “The purpose of counseling,” Carandang said, “should be to make [the survivors] more powerful, to renew their hope, to reframe their perspective.”
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