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POPULATION-PHILIPPINES: Gov’t Hands Tied by Conservatives

Diana Mendoza

MANILA, Jan 27 2004 (IPS) - Filipinos are becoming sexually active at a younger age, but the Philippine government feels its hands are tied by conservative groups, including the Catholic Church, that resist more active state involvement in population programmes and the use of artificial means of birth control.

Filipinos are becoming sexually active at a younger age, but the Philippine government feels its hands are tied by conservative groups, including the Catholic Church, that resist more active state involvement in population programmes and the use of artificial means of birth control.

Twenty-three percent of young people aged 15 to 24 are sexually active in a country where Catholic mores frown on premarital sex, says the 2003 State of the Philippine Population Report.

The report used much of the fresh data of the 2002 Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Survey, a national study by the University of the Philippines Population Institute that interviewed nearly 30,000 youth across the country.

In the 1982 and 1994 surveys, the University of the Philippines established the average age of sexual initiation at 18. In 2002, the age of initial sexual activity changed slightly to 17.5. The study also found out that young people who had sex before age 15 has increased eightfold from less than two percent in 1994 to 16 percent in 2002.

For many, the first sexual encounter was a spontaneous event; 55 percent said it was something they did not plan to happen at that time, but went along with it anyway; 43 percent said it was something they wanted to happen at that time. But 40 percent of those who had their first sexual encounter said they did not have any means of protection.


The population report, published by the Commission on Population and the United Nations Population Fund, listed sex as something that happens often at the end of the occurrence and intermingling of risky behaviour such as smoking, drinking and drug use.

But amid this backdrop, Tomas Osias, executive director of the Commission on Population, says the government is treading on fragile ground, wanting to respond to young people’s needs but also aware of the sensitivity of the matter.

“There is no clear policy if government would provide services to unmarried sexually active young persons,” he said.

Health centres run by the state in localities, he says, offer free health services but these are not ready for services appropriate for the young.

“To the conservatives, we are seen as promoting promiscuity and are allowing unmarried youth to have premarital sex every time we attempt to provide information and services on reproductive health, especially about sex education or the proper use of contraceptives, ” he said.

But the fact is that “the more we withhold information from the youth, the more problems it would create,” said Cecille Villa, executive director of the Foundation for Adolescent Youth, which has peer education programmes for the youth.

The Catholic Church frowns on any artificial means of contraception, including the use of condoms, and sees their provision as encouraging premarital or casual sex, or sex outside marriage.

This stance has had a lot of influence in a political environment where politicians and governments are often wary of offending the Church, given that more than 80 percent of people in this country of 84 million people are Catholics.

Yet according to the population report, it is time the government heeded the trends of a population that is becoming sexually active earlier and need the right information to avoid risks. Already, it says, “Risk behaviour, both sexual and non-sexual, are multiple and simultaneous. They are interrelated and may be mutually reinforcing”.

For instance, it noted the high incidence of smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol among the young, and how these often lead to drug use and sexual intercourse. “They are not usually done in isolation with each other, but rather, they are interlinked – those who smoke, drink and use drugs are more likely to have sex,” the report says.

Although pregnancy and parenthood are not the stuff young people are expected to busy themselves with, reality bites.

The number of teenagers who have begun childbearing is also increasing – from nine percent reported in the 1993 National Demographic and Health Survey to 11 percent in the 1998 version of the same report.

One-third of young women in the ages 20 to 24 had already given birth to their first child before reaching their 21st birthday. Young pregnancies account for 30 percent of all births in the Philippines; six percent of spontaneous abortions and three out of four maternal deaths.

The agency estimates that half of the 84 million Filipinos are 21 years old and under. Childbearing among the youth is the largest source of population growth in the Philippines. Of some 1.7 million babies born every year, around 30 percent come from young women.

But Osias said that although the fact that 23 percent of those in the age group 15 to 24, estimated to be around more than 16 million, are sexually active alarms parents, adults and institutions, he said the government pins its hopes on the 77 percent who are not.

“We want the youth to have the ability to say ‘no’ to sex,” he says. “We want them to have many options in life. We want to tell them not to have sex unless they are prepared for the consequences. We want them to be mature first in case they want to get married and have families.”

“I have a teenage daughter,” Osias says. “As a parent, there is this difficulty to discuss sexuality,” he told journalists. “But if I were a father and I know that my children are engaging in sex, I am for a more positive approach – sexually active youth must be given services on reproductive health and responsible sexual behaviour.”

Like Osias, Villa is a parent – she has three adolescent and young adult children. Adults may find it difficult to grasp what is going on with adolescents, teeners and young adults, she adds, but ”it pays to be aware”.

Because of the influence of media, the Internet, and Hollywood on Western-influenced youth, “sex is more openly discussed among the young”, she says.

Villa explains that the young handle their relationships like adults, but often have a slower and immature understanding of the impact of their urges and emotions. “Not all youth who go to bed are in love; not all youth who are in love go to bed,” she points out.

 
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POPULATION-PHILIPPINES: Gov’t Hands Tied by Conservatives

Diana Mendoza

MANILA, Jan 27 2004 (IPS) - Filipinos are becoming sexually active at a younger age, but the Philippine government feels its hands are tied by conservative groups, including the Catholic Church, that resist more active state involvement in population programmes and the use of artificial means of birth control.
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