The Philippines is the only country in the Asia-Pacific region where the rate of teen pregnancies has risen during the last two decades, according to the United Nations Population Fund.
In a country where the influential Catholic Church has strongly opposed the use of contraception, and where abortion is illegal, one in 10 young women aged between 15 and 19 are young mothers.
Madonna Virola has this report from the city of Calapan.
I meet 14-year-old Sharon at the open high school she attends once a week with other young people in challenging circumstances.
Today her daughter is in the care of her aunt so she can attend this class on science.
Like many young women in the Philippines, Sharon was totally unprepared to be a mother – she wasn’t even entirely clear about the basics of contraception.
“I didn’t know that with one act I would be pregnant. I only found out four months later. The father was my childhood friend who became my boyfriend, but he didn’t accept the baby and stopped supporting me. He wanted a baby boy,” says Sharon.
“We still live in the same village but he goes to school while I stay home and care for the baby and clean the house. People make fun of me for being a young mother,” Sharon admits.
Teresita Bolor is a doctor at the local government office in Calapan and has seen women as young as eleven years old fall pregnant.
Teen pregnancy she says can have serious health implications. There is a higher risk of high blood pressure, or hypertension, which can affect the growth of the unborn baby and even lead to premature birth.
Across the country there just aren’t enough services for young people to address the issues around teen pregnancy, says Dr. Bolor.
“There is inadequate provision of quality health services to address the needs of adolescent and teenage groups. There should be adolescent-friendly units established in rural health units. Youth-friendly facilities are not a priority program. There is lack of coordination among stakeholders, especially referral of adolescent in crisis,” Dr Bolor explains.
In the Philippines, attitudes toward contraception and family planning are heavily influenced by the Catholic Church, which is strongly against contraception.
Abortion is also illegal here, even though there are still around 500,000 abortions each year, say health activists.
But, some progressive voices are starting to emerge from within the church.
Here’s Oddie Quinio, for example, from the Apostolic Vicariate of Calapan explaining what gets taught in lectures at his church..
“In the church, we recognize the issue of rising teenage pregnancies. Many of which still not reported because of the stigma that goes with it.
Quoin continues, “We teach sexuality such that we scientifically label the body parts, unlike many others that treat these as taboo, which still marks Philippine culture. And this idea is supported by the new apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis and he stated that we have also to realize that a new and more appropriate language is needed.”
Sex education is starting to be taught more widely in some schools, but many young people still lack basic knowledge.
At the same time, the number of sexually active teens is on the rise. According to Plan International, one in three young people aged between 15 and 24 are sexually active – compared to 23 per cent a decade ago.
I spoke to Badeene Verora from Plan on the phone from Manila. The most worrying trend, says Mary, is that 78% of young people who are sexually active are not engaging in safe sex.
Child rights advocate Nanette Macaguiwa agrees. She says the lack of sex education is a huge issue.
“Our responsibility is to educate the learners and the parents. We will not stop our advocacy as regards to child protection and then we make sure that this policy is localized in the schools, there is a functional child protection committee. Sectarian schools should not discriminate against our young girls and boys found to have engaged in sexual activities,” Macaguiwa stated.
Health professionals and activists are urging the government to implement sex education across the board in the national curriculum, and provide better access to health services for young people.