"Can the Executive Order seeking to lower the rate of teenage pregnancy really make a difference?"
Joella Baloloy is waiting out this pandemic by dreaming of a good life for her family. At 25, she has three children, aged six, three and one. She makes do with making and selling desserts – mango graham, coffee jelly, graham balls, leche flan – to anyone who would buy. Her partner, the father of her children, is a janitor at a call center; sometimes employees there order from her as well.
Joella was 18 when she became pregnant. At that time, she had stopped studying for lack of funds and was working at a fastfood chain. The plan was to help her mother and save money so that she could continue studying. But she met her partner at work, and when she discovered she was pregnant, all plans were put on hold.
Pregnancy at a young age made Joella’s situation delicate. She had to be confined to the hospital for dehydration due to excessive vomiting. Mostly she clung to her mother for support, even as her partner’s family also chipped in to help.
The problems have been many, she says, and the pandemic has cast a lingering fear for her and her family’s safety. Joella has been on survival mode for a long time – she has to, for her kids. She still dreams of going back to school and then finishing a tech-voc course with TESDA, even as she has set aside her dreams of obtaining a full college degree for now.
Joella is also active with the family planning drive of the Commission on Population and Development, acting as a resource person and speaking about the need to limit the number of one’s children if parents wanted to assure them of a good life.
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Teenage pregnancy is not new, but the numbers from 2016 to 2019 show some cause for alarm, according to Popcom.
First, it’s the younger children having children. While the number of live births to mothers between the ages of 15 and 19 has been going down (201,182 in 2016, 194,401 in 2017, 181,217 in 2018 and 178,505 in 2019), live births to mothers in the younger age group of 10 to 14 years old have been rising: 1,903 in 2016, 2,077 in 2017, 2,250 in 2018 and 2,411 in 2019.
Another alarming figure is that nearly two thirds of children of minor mothers – 64 percent – are sired by older fathers, or those 20 years old and above. Only 36 percent of these births are with minor fathers.
POPCOM also estimates that by the end of 2020, there were 102,000 unintended pregnancies among adolescents – up 21 percent from original pre-pandemic projections – because of reduced access to reproductive health services as a result of the lockdowns.
In a recent presentation, POPCOM executive director Undersecretary Juan Antonio Perez III, said a mix of factors is responsible for young people engaging in unprotected sex and eventually having an unplanned pregnancy. There are institutional and behavioral factors (exposure and access to media, access to goods and services, socio-economic conditions, environmental conditions, and cultural norms and practices), influence of family and peers (attitudes, values and behaviors on sexual and reproductive health, and socio-economic conditions), self-efficacy/ intention (biological and sexual maturation, knowledge, attitude, values, skills and abilities) and even coercion (lack of choice, free will, skill and agency and bodily autonomy).
Being pregnant at a tender age has very real economic consequences, too, aside from the physical and psychological effects on the mother. Wages are generally higher for those who at least finished high school. When a young woman becomes pregnant, however, she has to stop studying — so goes the prospect of earning higher wages. Experts put a number on this: Discounted lifetime wage earnings foregone by a cohort of women 18-19 years old resulting from early childbearing is estimated at P33 billion, according to POPCOM.
What, then, can be done about this problem that threatens the growth and self-actualization of young women, fuels a cycle of poverty, and also deprives their children of a decent life?
In June this year, Malacanang issued Executive Order 141. The order mobilizes the existing coordinating and legal mechanisms of the government’s human development and poverty clusters. The POPCOM is tasked to consolidate these into a comprehensive action plan to prevent adolescent pregnancies.
The order envisions well-informed, empowered, healthy and responsible adolescents. The aim is to reduce the incidence of unprotected sexual activities and incidence of sexual abuse, improve health-seeking behavior and a healthy lifestyle, reduced non-sexual risky behavior and improved life skills for our young people.
Undersecretary Perez says his agency has put together the comprehensive plan with the other key agencies like the National Youth Commission and the National Anti-Poverty Commission.
As always, however, implementation will be crucial.
“It will rely to a great degree on funding by local government units and their bodies like the Sangguniang Kabataan, local Councils for the Protection of Children, and local health, social welfare, and population services.”
He says they are also working with Congress to increase funding for the EO as well as for a Social Protection Program for Adolescent Mothers. This will, again, be implemented by LGUs nationwide.
In the end, the most crucial, immediate, and daunting task lies on the shoulders of the parents of adolescent children. “Reconnect. Any dialogue is worth it, even if it is not about sexuality and relationships,” Perez says. “Open channels during a pandemic for parents, though, will require them learning more about the technologies and platforms that young people use, not to intrude but for parents to be ready to have a dialogue with the next generation.”
Meanwhile, Joella draws strength from her children amid the difficulties. “We should learn from our mistakes and correct them. The present cannot erase the past, but we can do something about its consequences. We should focus on the present to prepare for our future.”