WE have of late been professing quite a lot of admiration for and envy of some of our Asian neighbors. Some of us have wistfully imagined what might have been had the Philippines but emulated Singapore and the authoritarian strategies of Lee Kwan Yew. Or if we had but gone the way of South Korea, Thailand, and Indonesia, countries that were doing pretty badly in the 1950s and 1960s but have now sped well ahead of us. Even late-comers such as Vietnam are predicted to do better in the next decade or so. Various and different paths and policies were and are being followed by these countries to propel them to develop and industrialize, and transform their economies into advanced, high-income ones.
There is, however, one common factor for success that these other countries share and which most Filipinos have been loathed to confront — a national population policy designed to curb population growth. It is in this area that the Philippines looks as if it is really shooting itself in the foot.
An interactive datablog on global development and family planning published recently by the British newspaper The Guardian, shows a dramatic rise in rates of contraceptive use among women aged from 15 to 49 in East and Southeast Asian countries since 1970. [*Ford, Liz, and Josh Holder. “Contraception and Family Planning around the World – Interactive.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 08 Mar. 2016. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.] Indonesia’s prevalence rate jumped from 6.6 percent to 62.9 percent by 2015, Thailand from 20.2 percent to 78 percent, Vietnam from 17.2 percent to 76 percent, and South Korea saw an increase from 23.7 percent to 78.7 percent. Singapore, the state some esteem so much, has always been a high user of contraception and maintains an upward trend from 55.5 percent to 66 percent. By comparison, contraceptive use in the Philippines climbed more slowly, moving from 23.2 percent to 54.8percent.
Beyond Asia, Latin American countries have shown the fastest growth in contraceptive use and family planning, boasting a continental average of 72.7 percent. Brazil is the world’s largest Catholic country, yet almost 80 percent of its people use modern contraceptives and family planning is a constitutional right.
Overall, contraceptive use among women in developing countries has “soared.” The UN now projects a cut in global population growth by as much as 1 billion by 2030 (so instead of 9 billion people on the planet, the forecast is 8 billion people).The ability to make informed choices about sexual and reproductive health and family size is good for the lives of women and their families. “Evidence shows that women who have access to family planning choose to use family planning, often resulting in smaller families, higher educational achievements, healthier children [and]greater economic power as well as influence in their households and communities,” said Jagdish Upadhyay of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).
In our devoutly Catholic country, we have done our utmost to buck the trend and have resisted lowering our population growth. With a population of 102 million people, the Philippines is the twelfth most populous nation on earth. Births per woman stand at 3.15, our population growth rate is almost 2 percent, and both are the highest in Southeast Asia. Set at 12 years old, we share with Angola one of the lowest ages of sexual consent in the world. Our teenage pregnancy rate is the highest of the Asean countries and rising. In 2014, the National Youth Commission predicted that we are heading toward a teen pregnancy crisis. But we are already in a crisis. The Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Study (YAFS), through the University of the Philippines Population Institute, found that 14 percent of girls aged between 15 and 19 were pregnant or had become mothers.
Historically, Southeast Asian states responded to high birth rates through government campaigns designed to control and direct family size. Vietnam’s “stop-at-two” policy was particularly harsh on a woman, whose status within her husband’s family depended on male heirs. In Indonesia, school textbooks taught young children that parental love and care, when shared only between two children, would be generous, but would be diluted if there were many. Singapore manipulated birthrates by class. Special privileges and allowances were given to women with a college education who gave birth to a third child but were withdrawn from women without high-school diplomas.
We passed the Reproductive Health Law, with enormous difficulty, in 2012. The RH Law aimed to address the abysmal situation of poor women who give birth on average to 5.2 children. But putting the law into practical effect has been hobbled from the outset. A year after declaring the RH Law constitutional, the Supreme Court slapped a temporary ban on the Department of Health from issuing contraceptive implants, upholding the mistaken claim that the implants had abortifacient side effects. In July 2015, the free HPV (Human Papillomavirus) vaccination program that sought to protect young girls from cervical cancer was stopped on the grounds of morality. In a stunning act of misinformation based on a morally spurious assertion, opponents of the program argued that the vaccine promoted promiscuity. In January this year, the RH Law had its budget axed.
In the dynastic democracy that defines our governance, and where politicians defer to the Catholic Church, national policy attempts to curb population growth have been dealt with hammer blows. The issue struggles to stay on the development agenda and remains a political pariah. We are sabotaging our prospects for a prosperous society for all.
Who among the current presidential candidates has the courage to take a strong stance?