The Philippines’ legislative body has cut the budget for contraceptives.
This means that poor families, who only rely on free pills, condoms and other forms of contraception, won’t have any this year.
Jofelle Tesorio and Ariel Carlos report on the likely impacts of the decision from Palawan, the Philippines.
The women here at this mother’s group are merrily chatting with each other before their meeting starts.
One woman even jokingly asks who will be the next to get pregnant.
One of the attendees is 40-year-old Elvie Ubod. She is pregnant with her 10th child. Her first child was premature at birth and died thereafter.
Elvie says she doesn’t want any more children because life has already been so difficult...
Today, a health worker from an NGO called Roots of Health is giving a talk about sexual reproductive health and rights.
Elvie attends the Roots of Health meetings for free check-ups and prenatal advice.
Initially she received free contraceptive pills from health centres.
“I use conceptive pills on and off,” she says, “Whenever I feel something is not right in my body, I stop and that’s when I immediately get pregnant.”
Elvie is a housewife and her husband is a fisherman. Living on less than US$ 3 a day, they don’t have enough means to feed the whole family and send the children to school.
They rely on free contraceptives to control the number of children they have.
They are among those who will be the most affected after the Philippine legislature eliminated this year’s budget of 1 billion pesos or almost 21 million US dollars for contraceptives.
Roots of Health midwife Belle Contezano says the budget cut is like cutting a person’s leg.
“This really has a tremendous effect,” complains Belle, “When there was an allocated budget before, health centres always ran out of contraceptives. How much more now when there is no more budget for it?”
The budget was supposed to back the full implementation of the Reproductive Health Law or the RH Law, a population measure that took almost two decades to pass due to a strong Catholic opposition.
The Supreme Court declared the law constitutional in 2014, thrashing complaints of the Church and other conservative groups.
But earlier this month, a joint committee in Congress and Senate disapproved the budget.
Reproductive health activists like Amina Evangelista-Swanepoel are angry.
“We’re pretty furious about it. It’s a low-blow. Even among the senators themselves, they are complaining that it was done in an unethical manner,” says Amina.
One of the senators who orchestrated it was Tito Sotto, who publicly admitted he caused the budget cut.
Sotto has been a staunch opponent of the RH Law.
Amina says they don’t realize what effect it has on the poor and marginalized, that it is a huge disservice to Filipinos.
“It’s the people who need it the most who are going to suffer,” she says, “The poor people of this country, their first priority is food, second is shelter, third is education and fourth is health. So even though they know that they can’t afford another baby, if they only have so much money, they’re gonna buy rice for the family. They’re not gonna buy the contraceptives they need to control their fertility.”
A set of pills costs about a dollar.
For high and middle income Filipinos, this is probably nothing but for those who live on less than a dollar a day, this is critical. And twenty-five percent of the population is living in poverty.
Amina says the budget cut has dangerous repercussions.
“It’s gonna lead to more negative birthing outcomes,” she explains, “The mom could die, the baby could die. For people who very desperate who don’t want another baby, they’re going to have abortions.”
While abortion is illegal in the Philippines, there are still around 500,000 abortions that happen every year, say health activists.
The Philippines has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Southeast Asia as well as a high maternal mortality rate.
The RH Law not only addresses population control but also a comprehensive measure mandating RH education on youth and strengthening women’s and human rights.
For Amina Swanepoel, the lawmakers who axed the contraceptives budget are violating the law.
“I definitely believe that the actions they did are illegal so perhaps there will be a legal case against them, for those actions,” she says, “But at this point the movement is focussing more on trying to see immediately is there’s any way to get that funding reallocated before the elections.”
The department of health has said they will have to source other funds like foreign assistance.
But it is likely that free contraceptives will run out very soon.
NGOs like Roots of Health are trying to fill the gap. They expect to be overwhelmed with women asking free contraceptives if government centres can’t provide them.