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A time for rights

We better start educating young people about sex—the way they deserve, with methods that work.

By Rosa Amelia Perez and Joie Cortina

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Bea* (not her real name), 15, sits in the clinic of a women’s health NGO in Puerto Princesa City, staring at a pregnancy test cassette. She sees two pink lines appear and begins to weep inconsolably for her seemingly disappearing dreams of becoming a flight attendant.

One out of 10 Filipinas aged 15 to 19 have already given birth, making the Philippines the only country in the Asia-Pacific where teen pregnancy rates are still rising, according to a study by the United Nations Population Fund. This age group comprises 10 percent of the 100 million-strong population. Do the math: That is at least a million teen moms, which translates into a million children born to a mother (and not unexpectedly, a father) who is most likely unprepared for the responsibilities of parenthood. And for young people belonging to lower income groups, a mistimed pregnancy also means missed educational and advancement opportunities, making for a stickier poverty trap.

Kept in the darkw1

It would be convenient to blame this on the decline of moral values or the lack of guidance from parents. In our experience as reproductive health educators, however, this isn’t entirely true. Talk to any group of adolescents, and most will tell you that sex is only for married people and that they won’t have sex until they’ve finished their education, land a stable job, and are ready for parenthood. Engaging in sexual activity is dirty, taboo, and a distant reality. That is until they do have sex, ill-informed of not only the physical consequences of unprotected sex, but also the emotional effects of not being ready for intimacy.

It’s not that they don’t know that sex causes pregnancy; they do try to prevent it, but don’t really know how. From jumping up and down, to drinking herbal concoctions, to getting punched in the gut, young people resort to “natural” ways to prevent pregnancy. Those who do know about safe sex practices, however, are unable to access contraceptives due to legal and cultural barriers. Despite the successful enactment of Republic Act 10354, the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 (RH Law), the implementation of sex education programs in public high schools remains to be seen.

Old problems, old tricks

Not only are young people lacking information on the physiological aspect of sex and reproduction. Sure, teachers talk about sex in classrooms, but it is usually in a prohibitive way. Don’t have sex or you’ll get pregnant and your life will be over. Don’t even dare THINK of having sex; God is watching. While our culture and society in general has taken this approach to talking to young people about having sex, it hasn’t really worked for us, has it? Multiple studies worldwide have shown that approaches based on guilt and fear to discouraging early sexual activity have not worked. Young people who are given abstinence-only sexuality education end up having much earlier sexual debuts, and engage in unsafe sex, making them more likely to have unplanned pregnancies and contract infections. In stark contrast, comprehensive sexuality education programs, where young people are given scientific information and positive attitudes toward sexuality are encouraged, teen pregnancy rates remain low.

The Netherlands, for instance, has the lowest teen pregnancy rate in the world at less than 14 teen pregnancies for every 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19. The Dutch government, apparently, took a hands-off approach to sex education policy, leaving it to sex education experts. The result is a program that teaches sex in a normal and positive way.

Meanwhile, not too far from Philippine shores, Singapore is experiencing an all-time low in teen pregnancy rates. This isn’t because fewer teens are having sex, but because of increased contraceptive use. In fact, even abortion (which is legal in Singapore) among girls below the age of 20 and below has drastically declined from 1,483 in 2003 to 578 in 2013. Aside from school-based sex education, community-based programs and access to the Internet make accurate information about sex more accessible to young people.

LGBT teens sidelined

An anonymous texter is distraught about discharge that won’t go away even if they drank detergent powder dissolved in water. “Mamatay na po ba ako sa AIDS, ate? Boy po ako, at may bf po ako (Will I die from AIDS? I’m a boy, and I have a boyfriend.)”

While teen pregnancy is a pressing concern, advocates of adolescent reproductive health are also alarmed about the HIV epidemic in the country, and not without reason. In 2015, one in three new cases of HIV are persons aged 15 to 24 years old. Young Filipinos seem to be unaware of this looming HIV/AIDS epidemic. In a survey among high school students in Palawan, four in five respondents believe that only foreigners get HIV/AIDS, and Filipinos are not at risk of getting infected. Also, existing legal barriers for minors to get screened for sexually-transmitted infections impedes efforts to improve reproductive health for adolescents.

As it is, young Filipinos suffer from disservice due to these gaping inadequacies in our reproductive health education programs, more so, a very specific group—LGBT teenagers.

“Ate, may gusto po ako sa girl—at girl ako. Wala na po akong pag-asa. Gusto ko nang tapusin ang lahat (I like a girl, but I’m a girl. I’ve lost hope. I just want to end things),” laments a 13-year-old student.

Current efforts to provide sexual health education are well-intentioned, sure, but LGBT teenagers are inadvertently sidelined. They deal with a different set of issues, several of which are tangential to mental health (another area of health in which most Filipinos are underserved). Advocates are thus pushing for comprehensive—and inclusive—reproductive health education in our schools.

Sex education is more than just talk about the birds and the B-cups, or showing traumatizing videos of dismembered fetuses or warty genitals. At the crux of this crusade for comprehensive reproductive health education for young Filipinos is human rights. This fundamental right to education about their bodies, about sex and its consequences—great (and there are many, of course!) and grave ones alike—empower them to make intelligent decisions in this frivolous yet fragile time of their lives.

About the authors

Joie Cortina and Amie Perez are former sex ed teachers and radio shows hosts for Roots of Health, a reproductive health NGO in Palawan. While they immensely enjoy sitting down with young people, they’ve decided to take the fight for better reproductive health to the policy level. Joie recently joined Philippine Legislators Committee on Population and Development as its Media and Communications Officer, while Amie is a freshman at the UP College of Law.