A ‘teen pregnancy crisis’

Tzytel Castro is 19, married, and the mother of an eight-month-old. When she was 18 and a sophomore at West Visayas State University, she found out she was pregnant by her boyfriend (now husband).

At the end of that school year, Tzytel was given a bronze medal in recognition of her academic achievements; she went up the stage with her mother to receive it. “Up until that time, only my boyfriend and closest friends knew about my pregnancy—or so I thought,” recalls Tzytel. But after the ceremony, her mother asked her if she was pregnant, for unbeknownst to her, her mother had been “observing the subtle changes in my body.” Tzytel remembers sensing her mother’s disappointment, “but concern for my welfare came first.”

Together with her mother, Tzytel visited the Iloilo Provincial Hospital where she not only received prenatal care but also became part of the hospital’s Program for Young Parents (PYP), attending “Teen Moms Day” every Wednesday. Aside from going through checkups and consulting with doctors,  she also took part, together with other young parents or parents-to-be, in monthly sessions focusing on “danger signs” of pregnancy and childbirth, family planning and gender issues, as well as “life skills” that seek to train young people in such matters as negotiation, dialogue especially with one’s partner, self-esteem, and the ability to refuse when called upon to accede to something against one’s will.

Even before delivering her child, Tzytel was asked what family planning method she preferred. At first, she says, she wanted to use an IUD as she wanted to continue her studies; also, the 12-year protection it afforded could give her the time not just to graduate from college but even start on a career. But treatment for an infection dictated against the IUD, so she chose an implant instead (this was before the Supreme Court’s TRO on the devices).

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After delivering her baby, Tzytel was asked to share her experiences and learnings with other young mothers during the PYP days. Four of them were selected as “peer counselors,” not just delivering talks but also helping out with tasks during the “PYP Days.”

Aside from this, she was also endorsed  by the PYP to Tesda (Technical Education and Skills Development Authority) to pursue a caregiving course which she is about to start. Clearly, from an “accident” that nearly upturned her life, Tzytel is on track to making a productive life for herself, her husband and child.

Tzytel and the other members of the hospital’s PYP team showed up on the last day of the “Adolescent and Youth Reproductive Health Technical Conference” hosted by—and this is quite a mouthful—the Integrated Maternal, Neonatal, Child Health, Nutrition and Family Planning Regional Project in the Visayas, otherwise known as VisayasHealth.

VisayasHealth is part of a national program funded by USAID and managed by different US-based NGOs with local parties. It is managed by EngenderHealth, with a former health undersecretary, Dr. Jose Rodriguez, as chief of party. Aside from those working with the VisayasHealth projects, present in the Iloilo conference were officials and participating doctors of LuzonHealth, headed by Dr. Easter Dasmariñas, and MindanaoHealth headed by Dr. Dolly Castillo, as well as representatives of cooperating NGOs and agencies.

The Iloilo PYP team stood out at the closing ceremonies in their pink T-shirts, the “uniform” of the team members on PYP Day. But their presence was a statement in itself, for as Dr. Susana Madarieta, VisayasHealth deputy chief of party, told the participants, the Philippines is “on track toward a full-blown national teenage pregnancy crisis.”

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The numbers behind the crisis were borne out by the presentation of former health secretary Dr. Espie Cabral, who is the head (for now) of the National Implementation Team for the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law.

Young people have their own specific health problems, Cabral pointed out. These stem from “risky behaviors that reflect the process of adolescent development” accompanied by “lack of knowledge and skills” to cope with new challenges confronting them.

One of these is the prominent role that technology plays in their lives, said Cabral. The Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Study, for instance, has shown that 60 percent of Filipino youths use the internet, with 80 percent of them active on social media, and 52 percent claiming “virtual friends” they have never met personally.

There has also been a marked change in “role models” adopted by Filipino youths, with a shift from their parents and other older relatives to entertainers and/or celebrities.

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We really don’t know what this shift in choice of role models bodes for the behavior of young Filipinos, but Cabral said surveys have tracked their “changing views on premarital conception and marriage.”

In 2013, some 17.5 percent of young men and 17.9 percent of young women reported having sex, with the average age pegged at 16 years old. More alarming is that 78 percent of youths admitted not using any form of protection against pregnancy during their first sexual encounter, while a still considerable 76 percent admitted not using any contraception in subsequent encounters.

“Heightened, bolder and a wider range of sexual behaviors” characterize this generation, says Cabral. And one result of that, perhaps, is the rising rate of HIV infection, with 22 new cases reported each day, “No. 1 among nine countries in the world where the rate of HIV/AIDS transmission is still rising.” But even more alarming is that of this estimate, only 43 percent have been diagnosed.

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