MANILA, Philippines – In the Philippines, the norm is to pretend that no one is having sex. If your sex life is exposed, you can expect judgment, scrutiny, and gossip from your family, in your neighborhood, at school or at work – coupled with awe if you’re a man, derision if you’re a woman.
Prior to the internet, women had very few resources to access reproductive health education. Women in the Philippines could only rely on authority figures like their parents, governments and churches for information about sex. Because of the Catholic Church’s tight hold on the country, the trickle of mainstream information prescribes more or less the same thing: Abstinence is the only valid form of contraception before marriage. To hear anything else, one had to go to friends, the media or NGOs.
It’s no surprise, then, that the average Filipino teenager doesn’t know much about their own body, their rights or their options.
But in the information age, there is hope. The broadening of internet access in the country has created a new space where girls, under the veil of anonymity, can seek out answers to pressing questions about their sexuality and relationships. And it has allowed us to create safe spaces to discuss sexuality. The term “safe space” typically refers to somewhere people can come together to talk about issues of marginalization and oppression with compassion and without judgment.
Grrrl Gang Manila was conceptualized in March of this year as a safe space to discuss women’s issues. At our third meeting, the speaker opened her talk with a primer on feminism, focusing on its latest incarnation, the fourth wave. Fourth-wave feminism, even as its definition continues to evolve, differentiates itself from its forbears by its foothold in social media.
People or groups who know about reproductive health now have the opportunity to provide a beacon for teenagers searching for information. It’s one thing to have internet access; it’s another to know where to go to find what you need.
The stories we hear from Grrrl Gang gatherings, and our own experiences, tell us that discussions about sex aren’t really just about sex. Girls are dealing with boyfriends who pressure them into sex to prove their love; they are dealing with boyfriends who refuse to use protection. Religious influence pervades in dangerous ways, with sexually active girls not using protection because they don’t want to layer one sin over another. And they are paying the consequences of not knowing who to go to when something goes wrong with their bodies.
It’s this atmosphere of shame and guilt that stifles the vulnerability and courage girls need to come forward with their issues.
It may be a daunting challenge for educators, but the means to get through to girls are more varied and creative now. On a surface level, information on sexual health has been condensed into shareable content, including comics, memes and video blogs.
Safe spaces for women are burgeoning online, on sites such as Facebook. Social media has created new modes of interaction, in a tech version of the time when women would congregate in family compounds to prepare meals together, or mothers in villages would take turns looking after each other’s children.
In a sprawling urban mega-city like Manila, it’s easy to forget that these family compounds and villages are still a way of life for many living below the poverty line. More and more Filipinos can access information online for free on their smartphones, but that’s still not enough to combat the increasing teenage pregnancy rates.
Even women who can get support on the internet underestimate the need for safe spaces in real life until they show up to one. Members of Grrrl Gang Manila have said they found it so powerful to meet real people who share the same issues. To put faces to the avatars makes girls’ stories more real and more relevant.
There’s potential for safe spaces to transform communities that need them most, more so if they have targeted objectives. There can be a safe space for parents to learn how to talk about reproductive health with their children. And there can be one for teenage boys to understand how sex is a shared responsibility with their partners, which can lead to further discussion about toxic masculinity and gender stereotypes.
For teenage girls, safe spaces offer the opportunity to frame the discussion of sex around their dreams and aspirations. There can be places to talk about healthy relationships, about consent, boundaries, and love. And there can be a space to show our girls how to start advocating for themselves – to talk about pursuing higher education, finding fulfilment in work and starting families when they’re ready, or not at all.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Women & Girls.