More than 50 per cent of pregnancies in the Philippines are unplanned. And a staggering 14 Filipino women die every day due to pregnancy and complications in childbirth.
As Jofelle Tesorio and Ariel Carlos report from Palawan, a mother-daughter team has made it their mission to provide women and young people with much-needed reproductive health services and education.
It’s early morning at the Roots of Health office here in Palawan, but the staff is already busy tending to a group of women, some pregnant, others with children in tow.
Roots of Health is the only clinic on the island that provides maternal and reproductive health services and education, for free.
It’s just one of a handful of similar clinics throughout the Philippines.
And there’s a special mother-daughter team behind the initiative.
Susan Evangelista and Amina Evangelista-Swanepoel established Roots of Health in 2009.
As a retired literature professor, 75-year-old Susan has always had a soft spot for education.
And she’s seen countless unplanned pregnancies affect the education of her students.
“A lot of my girl students dropped out pregnant and although we did have some girls coming back after they had children and I was always very interested in them, I had a number of them in my classes and I thought it was really admirable that they would come back because it takes a major effort to do that but many just disappeared and you know, you could just see what was going to happen to them,” Susan said.
In Palawan province alone, 25 percent of pregnant women are teenagers.
It seemed like there was little assistance for them, says Susan.
“You just look around here and you get a feeling that there are [an] awful lot of people with no healthcare.”
Meanwhile, Susan’s daughter, Amina was halfway across the globe in New York.
She had just finished a double Masters in International Affairs and Public Health, when Susan suggested they set up an organisation together – one that could help prevent unplanned pregnancies in the Philippines.
“Truthfully, it was a half-baked idea,” recalls Susan.
“I came from a background where you don’t start things like that. In fact, when I told my mother, she said: ‘Would it be better to just give the money to someone who knows what they’re doing.’”
With no background in business or in setting up NGOs, they decided to take a risk and give it a go.
“We just said, ‘well, we will see what we can do, we will commit to two years and if at the end of two years, we’ve crashed and burned, nothing has happened, then we’ll stop and we’ll do something else. But at least we’ve tried,” Amina said.
Roots of Health now runs outreach programmes, where health workers explain contraceptives to college students. Amina believes it has had a significant impact so far.
“In the last two years, the teaching team has taught over 30,000 young people,” she explains.
“In the province of Palawan now, at the end of 2016, we were providing free contraceptives to over 6,000 women who couldn’t afford it. In a population of over a hundred million, it’s not a huge number, but here in Puerto or Palawan, it does make a difference, if you’re talking to a young person, you’re talking to a woman and they’re telling you how it has changed their life,” Amina commented.
As a reproductive health NGO in the Philippines, it can be challenging and frustrating at times.
The deeply influential Catholic Church makes any discussion of sex and sexuality, taboo.
“My biggest problem with the Catholic Church’s opposition is that they’re just ignoring the problems.”
Amina continued, “It’s like they have their heads in the sand. So when they say: ‘Oh, we shouldn’t do sex education because that will make kids have sex’, I say ‘what about the kids who are already having sex, what are we going to do about them’? Silence. Nothing.”
The previous government defied the Catholic Church, and passed a law on reproductive health to provide comprehensive sex education and free access to contraceptives, such as condoms to high school and college students.
Now President Rodrigo Duterte wants it implemented, but the budget has yet to be allocated.
However there is a silver lining. Roots of Health won a Stars Impact Award in 2016, giving them funding to hire teachers and health workers.
They are expanding to cater to more marginalised communities and plan to open youth-friendly health services.
“Ultimately, what we’d really like to do is make it so that people could talk about sex and contraception, and unwanted pregnancies and HIV and things like that without all these taboos about not sounding polite. So that problems could be dealt with more straightforwardly and I think we actually are making progress with that,” Susan said.
For Amina and Susan, change in cultural and behavioural attitude towards reproductive health won’t happen overnight, but they believe they’re making a huge difference, one step at a time.