by Marily Sasota Gayeta
( This article was published at Rappler in November 2019 under the title Time To Act On This Crisis)
The numbers are appalling.
538 babies are born to Filipino teens each day.
2000 10- to 14- year-olds got pregnant in 2017.
30% of Filipino teens had sex in 2017, 10% higher than in 2016.
170% increase in the number of new HIV infections among young Filipinos since 2010.
The Philippines has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Asia and the world, and is seeing a sharp increase in sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. This has led to disrupted education and employment, chronic financial difficulties and serious health complications.
Who is to blame for this undeclared national emergency? Parents, guardians, church people, government leaders and other supposedly responsible grown-ups. We are all guilty in our failure to tackle the crisis in its manifold aspects.
First of all, we refuse to recognize human nature at its nastiest stage: adolescence. This is a turbulent period characterized by rebellion, insecurity, young love and sexual awakening. Teens are constantly in a roller-coaster of emotions and erratic behavior. This is biology. And biology always wins.
Then, let’s put in another factor: peer pressure. Once outside the radar of adult supervision, teens are subjected to non-stop cajoling and temptations, and it is almost impossible not to give in. Add to this the unlimited access to pornography. WI-FI is available at every nook and cranny and the internet offers a buffet of sexually explicit materials. Then, there is freedom of physical mobility. Teenagers are sneaky and they will manage to go where they want to go. We can never beat them in the game of hide-and -seek.
These factors have led to the present crisis— a crisis that adults have refused to see or deal with. They are blinded by affection and traditional beliefs, or frozen by ignorance and indifference.
The solution is arming our teenagers with sufficient, accurate information about human reproduction, sexuality and safe sex; and giving them anonymous access to safe sex commodities, like oral contraceptives and condoms, through qualified health workers. We have to harness the power of every possible resource in the soonest possible time to curb the problem.
But no, Filipino adults are still dilly-dallying, not realizing that each day of delay translates to hundreds of additional babies born to young, poor mothers.
Filipino parents and religious sectors have been preaching abstinence for years. Unfortunately, this is not working. In 2016, 20% of teens were having sex. Then, it rose to 30% in 2017. It’s almost 2020. You do the math. These kids have raging gonads and a high aversion to old-style lectures. They are not receptive to biblical, moral preaching at this point. “Fornication is not pleasing to the Lord.”, we tell them. Well, these kids will gladly go to hell to be with their Romeos and Juliets.
Religious groups have criticized the use of artificial contraceptives. The immorality or morality of using these commodities will never be settled, and we should not allow this debate to further stall urgent intervention. As for the risks— yes. There are health risks involved in taking pills and using condoms, but there are more health risks in widespread teenage pregnancy and unabated unprotected sex.
Parents and guardians are either in denial or incapable of communication. “My daughter would never do that.” Guess what. She already did. Parents are always the last to know. On the other hand, talking to children about sex is never easy. It needs training and preparation. Hence, we need teachers and school counsellors to help parents in this respect. Teachers should train parents how to communicate with their children about these things. This can be done in PTA meetings.
The government should swiftly implement much-needed reforms in health, education and legislation. Aside from funding, legislative amendments are also necessary to allow teens to get safe sex products without parental consent. School curricula should be updated to give administrators and teachers the leeway to integrate real sex education.
There should be gender-segregated sex education classes (with other subjects still gender-mixed) where teens can ask questions without being embarrassed. They need lessons where human anatomy and reproduction will be discussed direct to the point. When we use euphemisms and metaphors even in science classes, we are sending the message that the human body is shameful and dirty. And we wonder why teens refuse to talk to us about this. Teenagers need frank and non-moralizing conversations on human desires and how to handle them. They also need to know the use and risks of safe sex products, and be aware of the consequences of every action they take.
Many parents worry that teaching teenagers about contraceptives and safe sex will encourage them to have sex. There is no empirical data to support this. But assuming that it is true, that’s one risk we have to take. Besides, what is the worst risk of talking about safe sex? Your teen going from being a virgin to having safe sex and staying healthy. What is the worst risk of not talking? Your teen going from being a virgin to having unsafe sex and contracting AIDS. You choose.
Priests and pastors should continue preaching abstinence, chastity and self-control. We will always need that. But they should stop demonizing the solutions proposed by people they don’t agree with. They don’t have the exclusive knowledge of right and wrong. Scientists and doctors are God’s instruments too, and they, too, have God-given wisdom to differentiate the moral from the immoral.
Again, how did we reach this crisis?
Through years of silence, denial, inaction and sin-fixated mentality.
Until we change our mindset and act decisively, we will continue to descend into this pit of unsustainable population explosion, perpetual poverty and contagion of diseases.