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Philippines counts cost of teenage pregnancies

Pregnant teenagers wait in line for a free pre-natal checkup at a clinic in Tondo, Manila, Aug. 31, 2012. — REUTERS

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

TACLOBAN CITY — Christine Homeres Villanueva, 16, and her 19-year-old husband were among the hundreds of thousands of young Filipinos who had to drop out of school due to early teenage pregnancy.

Ms. Villanueva, who lives in the central Philippine province of Southern Leyte, got pregnant last year and is expected to give birth in March.

“I almost lost hope when we found out that I was pregnant,” she said by telephone. “I was thinking of my future and the challenges of raising my child.”

Teenage pregnancy poses serious threats to Philippine economic growth particularly on its labor force, according to experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (UN).

One out of 10 births in the Southeast Asian nation are from mothers under the age of 19, Leila Joudane, country representative of the UN Population Fund, said at the launch of a campaign against teen pregnancy in the central Philippine city of Tacloban on Monday.

The Philippines is estimated to lose P33 billion a year due to adolescent pregnancy, which the Philippine government considers a national priority, she told a news briefing. Foregone income of teenage girls who get pregnant is P83,000 a year.

“When she gets pregnant early, she would earn much less than people who continue to study,” Ms. Joudane said. “The issue of adolescent pregnancy  affects her potential future.”

The Philippine Health department, WHO, UN and Korea International Cooperation Agency launched a campaign against teen pregnancy in Samar and Southern Leyte — two poor provinces in Eastern Visayas, which has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the country.

The $1-million program targets 275,538 adolescents and will train 150 health service providers, 150 public school teachers and 360 local government units in 20 towns in these provinces.

The Philippines faces a learning crisis that experts say threatens the Filipino labor force, which is struggling to compete in the global market.

“Adolescent pregnancy is not only a health and education problem but also an economic development issue,” UN Philippine Resident Coordinator Gustavo Gonzalez told the briefing.

He said adolescent pregnancy is a combination of trauma, costs and losses.

“From a health perspective, adolescent pregnancy brings up complications. It is costing the health system,” he said. “There are economic losses because [they are] an important part of the human capital of the Philippines that cannot be fully integrated into the labor market.”

Mr. Gonzalez said teen pregnancy is among the major factors why the Philippines’ female labor force participation rate is among the lowest in Southeast Asia.

He said a massive campaign against teen pregnancy is a development investment because it can improve human capital.

Health department officer-in-charge Maria Rosario S. Vergeire said adolescent pregnancy could result in poor social and economic outcomes “for both the adolescent mother and her child.”

Adolescent mothers are more likely not to finish high school or college and are likely to be unemployed, she told the briefing, citing a UN Population Fund study.

“More importantly, the poor outcomes also extend to their children, who are also more likely to have poor nutrition and education outcomes,” she said. “This has effects not just on the individual, but on society as a whole.”

The UN body said the Philippines would benefit from its younger demographic structure — one of three Filipinos are below 18 years.

But the window opportunity that the demographic dividend brings may be lost if Filipinos are not able to care for their sexual and reproductive health and their families, it said.

“Those who have been previously pregnant as teenagers are more likely to become pregnant again as teenagers, making them less likely to join the labor force,” Education Assistant Secretary Dexter A. Gablan said.

Live births among those aged 10 to 14 between 2016 and 2021 increased by 11%, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. 

There were 2,299 births from the age group in 2021, higher than 2,113 in the previous year.

Teenage pregnancies fell to 5.4% in 2022 from 8.6% in 2017, according to a 2022 survey by the local statistics agency.

Among teens aged 15 to 19 years who have been pregnant as of 2022, the highest percentage was recorded among those aged 19 years at 13.3%, it said. “This was followed by women aged 18 years at 5.9% and women aged 17 years at 5.6%.”

Ms. Vergeire said there might be a problem with the data since the country has struggled with COVID-19 for almost three years now.

“A lot could have been detected if we were in normal times,” she said. “But we were in abnormal times.”

She said authorities should verify the accuracy of the data, adding that the government should find out whether the pandemic had an impact on the reporting of teenage pregnancies in recent years.

Ex-President Rodrigo R. Duterte issued an executive order in 2021 to make the fight against teenage pregnancy a national priority.

He ordered all government agencies to identify and implement “practicable” interventions to ease adolescent pregnancies, including sex education, employment opportunities for young people and health promotion through media.

Mr. Gablan said the Education department has been enforcing sex education in public schools, which requires “upskilling teachers” and making the program appropriate for various regions.

He said the agency is looking at hiring more guidance counselors and health workers to boost access of young mothers to health services in schools.

The Department of Health and its partner agencies the UN and WHO seek to expand their pilot program in Eastern Visayas to other parts of the country.

Ms. Villanueva, the expectant mother, said she plans to study again after giving birth.

“We want them to complete their basic education because this will enable them to once again regain confidence,” Mr. Gablan said. Alternative modes of learning will give young parents the opportunity to continue their education, he added.