BATANG ina (child mothers) is how they refer to women like Maphil Sungahid, whose childhood is interrupted, practically snatched from them, when they suddenly find themselves pregnant.
At 17, Sungahid did not know how to deal with the problem of having to provide and care for another human being. After a failed abortion attempt a month into her pregnancy, and five months of trying to hide her growing belly, she had no recourse but to tell her mother.
“My mother was so mad,” she said, speaking in Filipino. “Things were really difficult because I wasn’t ready at all. I hadn’t planned on being a mother.” Without a college degree and adequate skills to earn a decent living, Sungahid felt she had no choice but to peddle her body.
“When my baby got sick, I had to work as a GRO (guest relations officer) in a bar. It was a desperate decision. I knew it was dangerous but I had no choice,” she recalled, speaking in the vernacular.
Sungahid shared her experience as a teenage mother during a press conference titled, “P-Noy Kami ang Boss Mo, Pass the RH Bill Now,” organized by the Democratic Socialist Women of the Philippines (DSWP), an NGO on women’s concerns.
Learning from her ordeal, Sungahid, now 23, has become a women’s advocate and is president of the group Katarungan, Kapayapaan at Kaunlaran para sa Kabataan (3K), a progressive youth organization working for the passage of a comprehensive Reproductive Health Bill in the country.
Her story, and that of many other women trapped in difficult circumstances because of unplanned pregnancies, makes the passage of the RH Bill a compelling need, she said.
The controversy around the RH bill centers mainly on the use of all methods of contraception which the Catholic Church opposes. The bishops favor only natural methods of family planning.
While thankful for the RH bill’s inclusion among President Aquino’s priority bills, advocates have been cautious about the prospects of this controversial bill.
They are particularly worried over President Aquino’s recent statements that he plans to consider inputs from the Catholic Church in crafting the government’s Responsible Parenthood policy. (Despite initially agreeing to a dialogue with Aquino on the bill, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines eventually withdrew from the planned encounter—Ed).
RH supporters want a more definite stand from the government’s executive branch. “We do not want a watered down Responsible Parenthood Bill,” said Elizabeth Angsioco, DSWP National Chairperson. “Define responsible parenthood to include comprehensive reproductive health services for the youth, couples, and women… Maternal mortality can be reduced by 32 percent with a comprehensive reproductive health bill,” she added.
One of the more contentious provisions of the RH bill is the age-appropriate sexuality education, which aims to reduce teen pregnancy and sexuality transmitted infections, and which is a “non-negotiable” issue among advocates. Based on her own experience, Sungahid said that today’s youth are either ill-informed on contraception, or are too embarrassed to seek advice from health professionals and avail themselves of reproductive health services.
“There are a lot (of girls) in our barangay who are in the same situation that I was. Many do not get to complete their schooling. These days, teenagers get pregnant at the age of 13, 14 or 15,” she said.
In a recent development, RH advocates were angered by the non-inclusion of the Responsible Parenthood Bill in the list of priority bills by the president. Ramon San Pascual, Executive Director of the Philippine Legislators Committee on Population and Development Foundation, Inc. (PLCPD), a leading proponent of the RH Bill, said the president’s perceived withdrawal of support for the RH bill” is essentially turning his back on his social contract with the Filipino People, which he himself defined during his campaign for the presidency.
Asked San Pascual: “What about the lives of women, especially poor mothers, who have long been suffering from the failure of the government to respond to their reproductive health needs?”
He cited a 2009 report titled Meeting Women’s Contraceptive Needs in the Philippines, which he said illustrates the urgent need for a comprehensive reproductive health law for women. The report from the Guttmacher Institute, an organization that focuses on sexual and reproductive health researches, notes that more than half of all pregnancies in the country are unintended.
The report estimates that there are 3.4 million pregnancies in the Philippines despite the fact that 7.2 million Filipino women are using contraception. Without contraceptive use, the figures would soar to 5.9 million pregnancies, 1.3 million more unplanned births, 0.9 million more induced abortions; and 3,500 more maternal deaths each year.
The report also notes that in 2008, about 1,000 women died as a result of abortion, while some 90,000 were hospitalized due to post-abortion complications.
In addition, over 60 percent of all pregnancies in the country are high-risk, according to Save the Children, an organization fighting for children’s rights. Their findings in 2008 show that women less than 18 years old face a higher risk of maternal death compared to women of ideal reproductive age (25-29).
For young women like Sungahid, abortion is an easy way out, accounting for one in eight maternal deaths worldwide, cites Save the Children. In the Philippines, it notes, “almost half (46 percent) of abortion attempts occur among young women aged 13-24. One-third of all unintended pregnancies in the country result in abortion, and 22 percent of women aged 15-24 have induced abortions.”
A comprehensive RH bill, cited its supporters, would in effect prevent abortion since it would help couples plan family size and avoid unwanted pregnancies.
Looking back at her own experience, Sungahid mused half-wistfully: “If public schools teach reproductive health, the youth can avoid early pregnancy. I support the enactment of a comprehensive reproductive health policy… if we delay the passage of this bill, many more dreams will be shattered, and the future of so many young people will be compromised.” • Women’s Feature Service