MANILA, Philippines – Ralyn stopped going to school at the age of 14, when her allowance from her mother, a laundry worker, wasn’t enough to cover school projects.
Embarrassed, Ralyn began to withdraw from group work at school until she eventually dropped out altogether. Around that time, a friend introduced her to Mario, a truck driver who was 10 years older than her. Now aged 17, Ralyn has a two-year-old daughter with Mario.
The Philippines is struggling to manage its soaring teen pregnancy rates. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has found that teen pregnancies in the Philippines increased by 65% from 2000-2010. An estimated 24 babies are born to teen mothers every hour.
Now, advocates and health workers are identifying a new trend: Teenage girls are not just getting pregnant, but doing so with much older men. They say it’s the need for financial security that drives girls into such relationships.
“He’s a lot older than me, but at least he has a job and can provide for me and our child,” Ralyn says of her husband.
Her family, already struggling to support Ralyn’s six other siblings, tacitly approves of the relationship. “I feel jealous when I see my other friends going to school. I wish I were still going to school. But it’s really better this way. I’m not a financial burden to my parents,” says Ralyn.
Too Much Too Young
The first time Joy got pregnant, she decided right away that she needed to terminate it. Joy was 15, and the pregnancy was a result of her first sexual encounter. She didn’t even tell the boy she had sex with about the pregnancy.
“What for? He was just a year older than me and had no ambition except to be with his friends. There was no future with him,” she says.
But the second time, things were different, and Joy decided to keep the baby. She began to live with the father, JR, who works as a porter in a cargo truck yard. He was 33, she was 16.
Now 18, Joy has two children; the youngest was born six months ago. “I’m on injectable [contraception] now but my husband doesn’t know,” she says. “He doesn’t want me to use contraceptives.”
Joy never finished school.
Multiple Teen Pregnancies
Government data from 2012 show a large number of multiple teen pregnancies like Joy’s, where girls have one or more children while still in their teenage years.
More than 18,400 women between the ages of 15-19 had two children, another 2,800 had three and an estimated 300 had four children.
“Teen pregnancy is not only a public health concern. It is a social development concern,” says Perci Cendana, commissioner of the National Youth Commission (NYC), a government agency that lobbies and advocates for youth-friendly policies.
“It’s like a floodgate has opened. Once a teen gets pregnant, she is likely to get pregnant again and again,” Cendana says.
The Need to Raise the Age of Consent
Child protection advocates say these trends make it necessary to raise the age of the consent, which in the Philippines is 12: one of the lowest in the world.
“The cases of these girls with much older men is simply rape,” says lawyer Katrina Legarda, director of the Child Protection Network, an NGO that works on providing abused children with medical and psychosocial support.
“Even if she says she had sex with him because she loves him, there is a need for informed consent. You cannot give informed consent as a minor, therefore it is rape,” she says.
The battle over the Philippine’s 2012 Reproductive Health Law also makes it hard for community workers and public health advocates to reach teenagers. The law prohibits minors from accessing contraception without parental consent.
Meanwhile, the full implementation of the rest of the law, which promises to provide access to a wide range of contraception to the poorest of the poor as well as implement age-appropriate sexuality education in schools, has been mired in controversy, as it is continuously challenged by conservative groups.
The biggest blow was a 2015 Supreme Court temporary restraining order that prohibited the health department from distributing hormonal contraceptive implants based on the claim by a pro-life group that the implants are actually abortion drugs.
The restraining order also prohibited the Food and Drug Administration from registering and renewing the product licenses of hormonal contraceptive brands.
The Commission on Population says 28 out of the 47 existing contraceptive brands on the market have an expired product registration. “Once the remaining stocks are gone, there will be no more available,” says Juan Antonio Perez, the commission’s executive director. For some teens, this will mean their access to contraception will be cut off. Others may never have had the chance to start using it.
The Philippines is also grappling with an HIV epidemic, which has been identified as the fastest growing in the Asia Pacific region.
“It really goes back to the education,” says Department of Health secretary Paulyn Ubial.
Or the lack of it. Sex education is not taught in most schools, and even if it is, it carries the singular message of abstinence.
That may be about to change: the Department of Education is scheduled to implement a comprehensive sexuality education program in phases this year as part of the overdue reproductive health law.
Mark Abellion, a program officer for the Likhaan Women’s Health Center, is a community worker looking after young mothers like Ralyn and Joy, informing them about contraception methods and encouraging them to space out their pregnancies.
“Our challenge is getting information out to these girls even before they get pregnant,” he says. “We are seeing that informing them at 15 is already too late.”
Ana P. Santos will be discussing the impact of the temporary restraining order on teenage pregnancy with a panel of experts in a Facebook Live event cohosted with Rappler on August 23. Click here for details.