Teenage Pregnancy: A National Priority

By Lance Isaac Reamon

Teenage pregnancy is a national priority. This was declared by Executive Order 141, s. 2021, in light of the steady increase of adolescent pregnancies in the Philippines. However, because of the national government’s stagnant implementation of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), the rise of young mothers continues to afflict the country. Nongovernmental organizations are then left with the burden to fill this gap, but with their limited resources and scope, the call to educate young girls, boys, and especially their parents remains as urgent as ever.

Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) indicates that mothers aged 15 to 19 years belong to the age group with the fourth highest number of registered live births in 2021. To be more specific, there were 133,982 recorded live births from mothers belonging to this age bracket.

Jacqui Lyn Calaran, a Community Development Facilitator from Plan International Philippines, states that this high number of teenage pregnancies can be attributed to the following factors: a lack of effective channels to inform adolescents about sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), the perpetuation of gender norms within their households, and the consequences of intergenerational poverty.

Hindi mapag-usapan sa pamilya ang SRHR,” she stresses. 

(Families are unable to talk about SRHR.) 

Because parents are usually untrained to explain the concepts of SRHR, these teenagers would often resort to the internet in answering their queries, without cross-checking the validity of the information they may have read, heard, or watched. In impoverished communities, Calaran points out that young boys are often pressured to work as early as possible, which fosters the mindset that if they can handle the responsibility of labor, then they can carry the weight of fatherhood. The same can be said for adolescent girls who are expected by their families to become mothers. Ultimately, Calaran indicates that their lived realities are sealed by a fatalist view of life stemming from their impoverished upbringing—because they grew up poor, they see no opportunity to break free from that kind of reality. 

To address these said issues and, consequently, the continuous rise of young mothers, the Commission of Population and Development (CPD) has been intensifying its efforts in launching projects under its Adolescent Health and Development (AHD) Program. However, despite the AHD Program being national in its scope, some regions fare better than others.

Glancing at Existing Policies: CAR vs. CALABARZON

Region 4-A (CALABARZON) records the highest number of registered live births in the 15 to 19-years-old age bracket at 16,120. In this region and age group, Cavite holds the most number of live births at 3,869, closely followed by Rizal (3,620), Laguna (3,363), Batangas (2,484), Quezon (2,451), and then Lucena City (333). 

On the other hand, the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) records the lowest number of live births from mothers aged 15 to 19 years in 2021, with only 1,922 in total. Benguet leads with 361 births from young mothers, followed by Kalinga (316), Ifugao (292), Baguio City (285), Abra (272), Apayao (233), and Mountain Province (163). 

Prior to this report, the two regions share notable similarities and also have key differences in the way they have conducted their projects under CPD’s AHD Program. In CPD’s most recently published accomplishment reports for Region 4-A and CAR, both regions have launched on-ground SRHR workshops across their various provinces, such as the You-for-You Teen Trail and Parent-Teen Trail activities. Both have also used broadcast and film to advocate for adolescent health, including the former’s participation in the National Adolescent Health and Youth Film Festival in 2015, and CAR holding a regional social media card contest last November 2020. 

That said, one significant difference lies in CAR’s intensified measures to combat teenage pregnancies following a sharp increase of mothers aged 10 to 19 years in 2017, according to a report by the Philippine News Agency. These include organizing additional adolescent health forums and establishing a regional adolescent health congress, scaling down into provincial teenage mothers’ congresses. In other words, maximizing stakeholder involvement became paramount in their efforts to reduce teenage pregnancy.

Still, despite all of these interventions, one puzzle piece has yet to be fully put in place—comprehensive sexuality education (CSE). 

CSE and the Role of NGOs

One of the mandates of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health (RPRH) Law entails the nationwide implementation of CSE. In the Department of Education’s CSE Policy Guidelines, the manner of conducting CSE uses a set of holistic core topics that are integrated into different subjects. These topics include: Human Body and Human Development, Personhood, Sexuality and Sexual Behaviors, Sexual and Reproductive Health, Personal Safety, and Gender, Culture, and Human Rights. The implementation of CSE, however, has been riddled with multiple issues since its inception over the past decade.

Despite the RPRH Law’s passing in 2012, the said policy guidelines were released in 2018—a lengthy six years after. Riezel Villa, the National Office Youth Coordinator of the Family Planning Organization of the Philippines (FPOP), indicated that the shift to the K-12 curriculum heavily delayed the implementation of CSE across the country.

Naging matagal ang proseso ng pagbuo ng curriculum,” she states. 

(The process of developing the curriculum took a long time.)

On top of this, the lack of adequate budget aggravated the delay of CSE. As of December 2023, Villa points out that only select pilot schools in the country have CSE. As such, the responsibility to address teenage pregnancies implicitly falls upon NGOs, according to Calaran. NGOs partner with local government units, such as the Sangguniang Kabataan, to launch their own SHRH-oriented programs that use a peer-based approach. Calaran emphasizes that the strategy of Plan International Philippines revolves around three key areas: parent-to-parent, youth-to-youth, and parent-to-child. 

Bakit natin ginagawa ‘yon? Kasi gusto natin na ang ating mga magulang ay naiintindihan nila ang [kahalagaan ng] capacity-building, and to be ‘askable’ parents,” Calaran explains.

(Why do we do that? Because we want our parents to understand [the importance] of capacity-building, and to be ‘askable’ parents.)

Moreover, NGOs act as consultants. Villa points out that FPOP—together with government agencies and civil service organizations—is part of a technical working group that assesses the implementation of CSE at a national level. The organization also trains educators to teach CSE. 

In the battle against teenage pregnancies, NGOs play a pivotal role in supporting the government’s efforts. That said, Calaran clarifies that at the end of the day, they can only do so much given how limited their scope is.

Looking at the Big Picture

Overall, it is easy to pass legislations to address a certain issue. However, implementing these laws can be an entirely different story—the implementation of CSE being a notable case study. While the government’s lack of prioritization can be mainly attributed to inefficient bureaucratic processes and a lack of funding, one underlying assumption can be the conservative nature of the Philippines, which prioritizes abstinence as the only viable solution. Villa stresses that educators must go through a ‘transformation of values’ to effectively teach CSE. Nonetheless, this transformation must encapsulate all facets of society—children, teens, parents, and government officials alike—if the battle against teenage pregnancies must come to an end. 

The main takeaway: accelerate and maximize the implementation of a holistic, transformative CSE, not just for teens and children, but most especially for their parents. In teaching the nuances of sex, sexuality, and personhood, the learning must not be limited solely within the four corners of the classroom. The discussion should stem mainly from the household, within the intimacy between parent and child. 

But this can only be achieved if the national government can rethink its priorities and go beyond writing laws. Sadly, within the current confines of society, power mainly trickles down from the top.