When a girl becomes a mother

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By Michelle Anne P. Soliman

Nineteen-year-old Flordeliza of Lapaz, Iloilo City had her first child in January — she only realized she was pregnant when she was already three months along. The fifth of six children, she had stopped going to school in 2014 in order to earn money for her family. Now to help support her own child, she takes in laundry in their neighborhood while the father of her child is currently seeking employment. Asked if she would like to attend university and finish her studies, she agreed. She hopes to pursue a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management if given the opportunity.

This may be an impossible dream. Young parents like Flordeliza miss out on education and job opportunities and instead adjust to their responsibilities as parents.

“Every year, the Philippines forfeits around P33 billion in lost income alone due to early pregnancy,” which is “over 1% the country’s GDP as of 2012,” states a study on the effects of teenage pregnancy by health economist Dr. Alejandro Herrin in 2016.

There are 10 million girls between the ages of 10 and 19 in the country according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. In 2017, “9% of women aged 15 to 19 have begun childbearing,” the National Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) reported. By the age of 19, one in five girls is, or will soon be, a mother.

Early parenthood prevents young girls from achieving their goals and expanding their capabilities. And they more likely to fall into poverty.

Not surprisingly, the more education a young person has, the less likely they are to engage in sex before the age of 18, according to the Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Study of 2013. The proportion of young people who had their sexual initiation before the age of 18 is highest among those with just elementary schooling at 30%. This drops as education increases.

In order to increase awareness among young girls from marginalized communities about the issues surrounding teenage pregnancy, the Babaenihan campaign — a portmanteau of the Filipino words babae (woman) and bayanihan (community cooperation) — was launched in 2016 as a collaborative effort between the Office of the Vice-President (OVP) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). It aims to invest in education, health, and economic opportunities. The campaign’s activities include national-level talks, community-based talks, and local government engagement. Under the OVP’s Angat Buhay program, the Babaenihan campaign has held events in Palawan, Pampanga, Camarines Sur, and Metro Manila.

“The key things to do is to provide information to young people through education. For those who are not in school, [we are] finding ways to [reach] communities through NGOs and provide information, make sure they have access to health care services and facilities,” UNFPA country representative Klaus Beck told the press shortly after the Babaenihan campaign engagement at the UP Visayas — Iloilo campus in March.

“[We need to] make sure that the health facilities are welcoming to young people so they feel comfortable going there… We need to look at the laws that we have in the country which is related to access of people to modern family planning,” he added.

Every aspect of a young mother’s life is affected alongside her child’s welfare said Vice-President Maria Leonor G. Robredo. “It does not only affect the nurturing of the child, but also the young mother’s education, her economic opportunities after [child birth], and the welfare of the child. It affects many aspects of her life.

“This is the intention of the Babaenihan campaign,” said the vice-president in a mix of English and Filipino. “It is a series of talks. After this, there will be talks with the teenage mothers or those who have recently given birth to provide them programs in order to get back on their feet. I think the key to prevention of teenage pregnancy is access to education.”

Traditional ideas dictated by culture are one of the reasons the young enter married life early. “Culture dictates that when a girl becomes a young woman, she may already marry. [This] even if the law dictates that only boys and girls ages 18 years old can enter into marriage,” Ms. Robredo noted during an engagement with the students. She said she saw many 14- and 15-year-old who were already mothers while on a her recent visit to survivors of the Marawi siege in Mindanao, saying that this is prevalent in indigenous communities.

Many young people’s lack of access to information can lead to starting a family earlier in life, said Ms. Robredo, elaborating that who have access to information tend to prioritize their education and are more career-oriented. “Access to schools is a number one [priority]. If the child is very poor and the access to school is hard, dropping out becomes an attractive option,” she said.

A fact that many parents may not want to face is that there is a good chance that their child is already sexually active.

One in three Filipino youths have already engaged in premarital sex according to the Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Study in the Philippines of 2013, and one in every four began engaging in sexual activity before the age of 18. Worse yet, almost 78% of the first instance of premarital sex is unprotected, exposing these young people to the risk of pregnancy and disease.

Mr. Beck stressed the importance of encouraging conversations on reproductive health in the home.

“Teenage pregnancies are not really a deliberate choice. It often happens by chance,” said Mr. Beck. “It happens often because girls don’t really have the information they need to understand their own bodies. They don’t have the ability to say ‘no’ at times [when it comes to sex]. We have to go out of our comfort zone. Our comfort zone is to not talk about these things. If they understand how their bodies work, then they are less likely to become pregnant,” he said.

“Being a father of two young girls, it can be difficult to talk about it. But they know you have to have the conversation about their bodies. We have to protect young girls from abuse because some of these pregnancies happen because of it. It has an impact your entire lives going forward. It may end your education, it may lead you in the worse place financially, it might lead you to have another child directly afterwards. It changes the trajectory of your life,” he said.

The abuse is real. “Fifteen percent of girls aged 13 to 17 have experienced sexual violence,” noted Ms. Robredo, citing a “national baseline study on violence against children in 2015.”

“We (UNFPA) would want to focus on community talks, whether it’s with young mothers and young boys to really make changes happen, moving from awareness to action,” Mr. Beck told BusinessWorld.

“We are working with national and local governments to help make [medical] services better and more youth friendly and accessible,” he said of medical aid. He also mentioned partnering with the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) in providing livelihood programs for young mothers.

“My suggestion to the UNFPA is for the next module to have breakout sessions for the young ones and for them to do action points based on what they have learned,” Ms. Robredo told the press.

The second Babaenihan event this year following the one held in Iloilo city is scheduled to be held in Lanao del Norte.