Philippines: Teenage pregnancy still at record rates

By Zofia Reych

The Philippines are often brought up as an example of a Southeast Asian country with the strongest women’s movement in the region.

The country has already had two female presidents, Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, while Munoz Palma became the first female Supreme Court associate justice as early as 1973. Filipino women got the vote as early as 1935. Eighty years later, the country was listed seventh in the Global Gender Gap Index, alongside high-income Scandinavian nations.

However, a pertinent question arises: what is the reality for women in a country where a man can be elected president just a few days after he casually jokes about rape? In fact, Rodrigo Duterte’s polls soared after his infamous remark.

The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index is based on 14 variables representing access to education, health and survivability, economic opportunities and participation, and others. The Philippines’ performance in the ranking can be attributed to very good results in education and health but other indicators point to underperformance in areas such as labour participation.

In the Philippines, only every other woman (53% in 2014) is professionally active as the responsibility for household duties rests mostly on the shoulders of females. Those participating in the labour market are still paid 15% less than their male counterparts. Those working managerial and other high skilled jobs are in a better position with the pay gap at 10%. By comparison, the average pay gap in the UK is 24%.

The optimistic results of the Gender Gap Index have to be taken with a pinch of salt, especially that other, similar reports tell a different truth. In the United Nation’s Gender Inequality Index the country ranks a lowly 115th position out of 155. Here the factors analysed included adolescent maternity rates. In the Philippines, one in ten women aged 15-19 are already mothers.

Maternity rates in general, as well as maternal mortality, are also very high compared to other countries in the region. The ongoing struggle for access to contraceptives is one of the greatest hurdles for Filipino women’s rights campaigners.

In 2012, President Benigno Aquino III signed the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill that, at least in theory, guarantees women access to free birth control. The long fight with the Catholic Church and parliamentary conservatives leading the anti-choice crusade took nearly 15 years.

Another three were needed for the new law’s implementation, and it is still far from functioning smoothly. The adolescent birth rate is still one of the highest in the world. On average, there are 53 births among 1,000 women aged 15 to 19 in the Philippines – clear proof that even though the RH Bill is now in place, education and accessibility are still major issues.

“It’s not equal rights if there are people left behind,” argues Anne, who calls herself a “Filipina feminist” on the women’s rights website She refers to lack of education and poverty being both major factors related to high pregnancy rates. Educated, middle class women from big cities are not those in trouble, but they those who are brought up as examples of empowered Filipinas as imagined by the Gender Gap Index.

Vanessa Aquilos, a 24-year old mother of three from a low-income background, told Al-Jazeera she simply didn’t know that sex would lead to pregnancy, let alone that contraceptives were an option.

While the tone set by Catholic Church still dominates the social discussion about contraceptives, teenagers are increasingly exposed to Western customs through TV and the internet. A higher perceived sexual freedom may lead them to having multiple partners – all the while with no education about safe sex and no access to contraceptives.

The Reproductive Health bill includes a section on sexual education at schools but for now teachers themselves require training on how to deliver sex education classes.

That’s not all that’s wrong with the RH law. In fact, it doesn’t clarify how birth control is meant to be delivered. If local authorities are at all interested in offering contraceptives to women in the area, they often depend on foreign aid. On top of this all, in 2016 parliament further cut the budget allocated for the implementation of the RH law.

High teenage pregnancy rates fuel other problems. Adolescent mothers are often unable to provide sufficient care leading to low child survivability. And in a country where abortion is still punishable by law, three women die every day as a result of complications following illegal procedures.

The government had promised to return to the RH issue after May election. However, can we expect anything good with Rodrigo Duterte now leading the country? Women’s rights campaigner Senator Pia Cayetano argues yes. In an interview with Rappler, she explained Duterte’s rape jokes with his rough past giving him a “foul mouth”, and added: “What I’ve seen in Davao is the most amazing local executive when it comes to women’s issues. I cannot downplay what he has done for Davao. This would be a disservice to this man who has stood for everything women empowerment in Davao City”.

We can all but hope that Senator Cayetano is right.