Will Improved Sex Education in the PH Help Solve Rise in Teenage Pregnancies?

With a deep-seated conservatism in our nation’s culture, breaking the stigma requires a move toward open discourse.

Quarantine restrictions were put in place in March 2020 to prevent the worsening of the health crisis due to COVID-19. This, however, led to some irreversible repercussions, such as the 2021 baby boom projected by the University of the Philippines Population Institute (UPPI) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Based on their study, 2.5 million new unplanned pregnancies could emerge out of 2020–42 percent higher than the figures in 2019. Some factors would include forcing women to stay at home as well as their lack of access to reproductive health care during the lockdown.

Almost a year since the first wave of strict quarantine restrictions, public transportation is still affected, jobs have been lost, and some family planning centers, essential businesses especially for women, are still only available with minimal staffing. Condoms and contraceptive pills are also limited in supply, especially in rural areas far from the capital region.

The Hidden National Social Emergency

According to a 2019 study by the Commission on Population and Development (POPCOM), early adolescent pregnancy and unintended pregnancies were among the most urgent problems of women. As per the Philippine Statistics Authority’s new civil-registry statistics for 2019, births among girls aged fifteen and under increased by 7 percent compared to 2018. In the same year, POPCOM recorded that 2,411 girls aged ten to fourteen gave birth — putting the number at almost 7 girls per day. This was the ninth year since 2011 that the figure had increased, with poverty and lack of parental care as the identified factors contributing to the spike.

Additionally, the number of Filipino minors who gave birth in 2019 increased to 62,510, from 62,341 in 2018. They also reported that 70,755 families were headed by minors by the end of 2020.

Teenage pregnancy had become a major issue in the country that a “national social emergency” was declared by the National Economic and Development Authority in August 2019. In 2020, the lockdown exacerbated the situation as the imposed rules made it difficult for teenage girls and women in general to have access to medical facilities, contraceptives, and health care services, among others.

For the Philippine Family Planning Organization of the Philippines, there’s also a culprit lying quietly amid this teenage pregnancy crisis: the country’s lack of comprehensive sexual education, which is defined as high-quality teaching and learning on a wide range of concepts relating to sexuality and sex, including proper discourse in navigating relationships and managing one’s sexual well-being. It aims to provide learners with age-appropriate and medically relevant materials, as well as awareness and skills that will allow them to mature into sexually healthy adults.

From an Educator’s Point of View

Franz Alexander Dulay, a teacher from Lourdes School of Mandaluyong, handles sex education for grade 10 students as part of the school’s science curriculum. In his lectures, he highlights the ways to take care of the male and female reproductive system and sexual health. He also caters to other questions teens might have with regard to the subject matter.

“At the end of the topic, I also ask the students about what they are curious about and ask them to throw me any questions that are on their mind related to sex, sexuality, and sexual health,” he adds.

But Dulay believes that even if sex education is already present in the curriculum, there’s still more that can be done. “Students must know not only the parts of sex education but the content as a whole,” he admits. Sex education, says Dulay, is something that everybody should be knowledgeable about as it concerns their sexual well-being.

The inadequacy of sex education is also a risk factor in the rising cases of teenage pregnancy. Placing emphasis on sex education rather than generalistic knowledge about sexual health should be the priority. Dulay believes that if teenagers were taught about safe sex practices and sexual health, the number of teenage pregnancies would drop “dramatically,” and it would be better to do it as early as possible. “Emphasizing sex education as early as junior high school is important not only to lower the risk of teenage pregnancy but for every individual to really know everything they need to know about sex and all the related aspects that are connected to it.”

Comprehensive sex education programs have also been proven to decrease the prevalence of sexual activity, sexual risk behaviors, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and teenage pregnancy. Researchers from the University of Washington said that teenagers who receive comprehensive sex education are much less likely to get pregnant than those who do not receive formal sex education. Teenagers can also make more educated choices about sex if they have a clear understanding of the consequences associated with unsafe sexual activities.

In countries like the Netherlands, for instance, all children aged four and up are required to receive age-appropriate sex education. This curriculum focuses on instilling respect for both their own bodies and sexuality, as well as the bodies and sexuality of their peers. Lessons under the said curriculum cover everything from consent, to contraception, to sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The country’s teenage pregnancy rate, as a result, is very low because of this robust public health initiative.

The Dutch’s approach to sex education has also attracted considerable attention since the Netherlands has some of the best results when it comes to reinforcing teen sexual health. Research shows that teenagers in the Netherlands do not have sex at a younger age than their counterparts in other countries in Europe and America. The majority of 12- to 25-year-olds in the Netherlands have stated their first sexual encounters were “wanted and fun.” In contrast, 66 percent of sexually active American teenagers polled have said that they wished they had waited longer to experience their first sexual encounter.

The Philippines is making progress, albeit slow. For one, the Department of Education (DepEd) is planning to make sex education a separate subject instead of integrating it with other subjects, such as biology or MAPEH. Education Secretary Leonor Briones says that she is open to the inclusion of a separate subject that would dwell on reproductive health and other sex education–related topics. “We are now into curriculum change and that can be considered especially in junior high school.”

Since the occurrence of early pregnancy spikes among 15- to 18-year-olds, she believes the subject would be more suitable for high school students. Briones is optimistic that other similar institutions and civic organizations would be able to help with materials related to sex education and reproductive health. Unique programs and campaigns, such as national summits on early pregnancy and other related matters, would also assist young people in making responsible decisions, she explains. DepEd has also released policy guidelines on the implementation of comprehensive sex education (CSE) to combat the rising rates of teen pregnancy, sexual harassment, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) among Filipino youth. So far, indigenous learning systems and the Madrasah Education Program, a comprehensive curriculum in public and private schools with the aim of providing adequate and applicable educational opportunities in the context of Muslim culture, practices, traditions, and interests, will integrate CSE in subjects like MAPEH, science, edukasyon sa pagpapakatao, araling panlipunan, and personality development.

The Hurdles of Sex Education

The Roman Catholic Church, the largest religious denomination in the Philippines, remains a pervasive force in hurdling progressive efforts toward strengthening comprehensive sex education in the country. As a dominant institution, they have historically had a significant impact on the quality and content of sex education provided in educational institutions around the country due to an unfounded fear that sex education will encourage young people to engage in sexual activities.

Dr. Angelita Aguirre, head of Human Life International, an organization attached to the Catholic Bishop Conference of the Philippines’ Episcopal Commission on Family and Life, criticized DepEd’s proposal to educate high school students on contraceptives. “If teenagers should be taught sex education, their parents should be the one to teach them,” she wrote in her letter to DepEd. Aguirre believed that DepEd’s lesson plan is “devoid of full disclosure and truth-telling,” claiming that it fails to mention that the condoms do not guarantee protection against conception or sexually transmitted infections.

In March 2010, the Knights of Columbus, a local Catholic organization, also led a rally against sex education in schools that attracted over 3,000 people. House Bill №5043, also known as the Reproductive Health and Population Development Act of 2008, was met with protests throughout the country, mostly from religious organizations. Several compromises and changes to the initial sex education curriculum were made by lawmakers in an attempt to negotiate with the church. This involved refraining from discussing abortion or contraception in any of the planned sex education courses in schools. These adjustments, however, still rang bells in the Catholic Church, which aims for all sex education courses and measures in schools to be abolished.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The first step lies in the collaboration between parents and schools, for them to work hand in hand in bringing about a palpable change.

It all starts at home. Parents and guardians are faced with the very real need to provide their children with knowledge about their bodies from the moment they become curious about sex. And while sex education is being taught to an extent in schools, supplemental teaching at home will contribute greatly to the well-being of teenagers. Communication between parents and their children at an early age is crucial, especially as they traverse a critical stage of their lives. Parents may not know when or how their children think about sex if they do not talk about it with them. After all, children access sex-related materials (such as porn) earlier than parents believe. This secrecy brews a penchant for risky experimentations and uninformed behaviors. After all, parents, not teachers, are the ones who have constant and long-term interactions with their children as they spend more time at home, especially with the distance learning setups in place due to the pandemic.

As POPCOM National Capital Region director Lydio Español said in an interview with The Philippine Star, “Our parents are not open to discussing sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS, teenage pregnancy. It is still considered taboo.” Parental supervision, however, especially on educating children about sex, can help remove the stigma associated with it, Español said.

Moreover, there is a need for sex education to be taught and implemented into the curriculum not later than junior high school. Educating teens about their bodies and sex at an early age will be necessary for their growth and transition into adulthood, as this leads teenagers toward the path where they can become more mindful of the world around them.

Sex education programs should also recognize and respond to diverse student needs in order to be effective for everyone. Sex, culture, religion, and sexual identity should all be taken into account into molding a well-rounded individual. Teens, regardless of their sexual development, deserve to feel that the sex education they get is applicable to them and relevant to their needs. Aside from teaching their students, teachers should also keep in touch with students on a regular basis to practice proper knowledge transfer and accountability. This will aid in the identification of problems or suggestions on ways to change the overall classroom experience.

Given the country’s lack of proper sex education, further efforts to raise awareness about the subject are needed. To prevent more teenage pregnancies, local government units should intensify community-wide awareness programs toward underage pregnancies. A nationwide multimedia effort to increase public consciousness about reproductive health must be implemented as well.

Teens naturally become intrigued about sex, but being unaware of its possible repercussions poses a possible danger to them; better access to sex education could at least give them the chance to make informed decisions. In order for children to succeed in school, parents and teachers must collaborate on a common goal. After all, children are more naturally encouraged to do well when they see that both school and parents are interested in their growth and development — not just as students but as human beings.

This article was written by our contributor, Andrei Santos.

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