More than a decade and counting: The long and thorny road towards reproductive health of women in the Philippines

This article is written by Alexandra “Jing” Pura who is currently the Gender Justice Program Coordinator of Oxfam in the Philippines. 

On August 6 this year, the almost impossible happened:  the Philippines’ House of Representatives finally voted to end the period of seemingly endless interpellations and the Reproductive Health Bill is now in the period of amendments.  After the ‘ayes’ and the ‘nays’ were shouted and the presiding officer said “the ayes have it” I almost cried in disbelief.  This is the farthest that the bill has gone in more than 10 years.  In previous congresses, legislators have studied the proposed law, heard the arguments of the most publicly debated policy measure in recent history, only to abandon the bill without even voting on it.

The euphoria was short lived.  The Senate could not match the HoR’s political will to vote to end interpellations.  We need to have both the HoR and Senate’s versions of the RH bill for a bicameral meeting to proceed.  Sotto’s promised series of Turno en Contra continue to be re-scheduled.  I say I have never seen such blatant filibustering.  Today, September 4, Senator Pia Cayetano, co-author of the RH Bill in the Senate, vented her ire on public pronouncements from several male senators, including the Senate president on plans to suspend deliberations until June 2013.  With elections happening on May next year, 2013 is the last year of this present congress.  She said delaying the RH vote is “irresponsible, so old politics. They’re trying to condition the public that there’s no time to finish (the) RH bill. We are already in the period of amendments. Only need a few session days for this. Beyond that, it’s just delaying tactics.”

Today and tomorrow, the House of Representatives scheduled plenary for the amendments.  This is quite a feat.  The senate will be pressured, hopefully, to come up with the Senate bill.  If you want to take part in these historic sessions, come to the HoR at 4 pm and wear purple.  Let’s not wait for June 2013 as Senator Juan Ponce Enrile would have it.

The deliberate tactic to delay the enactment of a law that can enable the government to improve and expand its delivery of RH services is all the more unjust in light of most recent statistics on maternal deaths in the Philippines. The 2011 Family Health Survey of the National Statistics Office reveal that the Philippines maternal mortality ratio has increased by 36 percent, from 162 women dying from pregnancy-related complications and childbirth for every 100,000 live births in 2006, to 221 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2011. This translates to about 15 Filipino women dying every day, according to a recent statement of the UN. Most of these deaths are due to preventable causes.

The passage of the Reproductive Health Bills seems to be a major victory for Filipino women. (Photo: Oxfam Archives)

The number of teenage pregnancies is also increasing.  The fertility rate of girls 15-19 years old rose by 38 percent in 2011 from base figure in 2006.  One of the most contested features of the RH bill is age-appropriate RH and sexuality education from Grade 6 to fourth year high school. The Catholic Church hierarchy remains strongly opposed to the inclusion of RH and sexuality education in the education curriculum arguing that doing so would promote promiscuity.

According to a 2009 Policy Brief jointly published by the University of the Philippines Population Institute,  Likhaan Center for Women’s Health and Guttmacher Institute based on research and surveys:

  • Without contraceptive use in the Philippines, there would be 1.3 million more unplanned births, 0.9 million more induced abortions and 3,500 more maternal deaths each year
  • More than half of all pregnancies in the Philippines are unintended.
  • 3 in 10 Filipino women at risk for unintended pregnancy do not practice contraception; they account for nearly 7 in 10 unintended pregnancies.
  • Poor women are especially likely to need assistance in preventing unintended pregnancy.  The 35% of women aged 15-49 who are poor account for 53% of unmet need for contraception

According to surveys, 70% of Filipinos are in favour of the bill, challenging the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines’ threat of a Catholic vote against legislators who will vote to pass the RH bill into law.

What is new this time around for the RH Bill advocacy is that many more voices have joined women’s groups in this advocacy of over a decade – researchers, academics, economists, the LGBT community, media personalities, other non-Catholic religious groups and even Catholics who are pro-choice.  President Aquino declared the bill as one of the priority measures of his administration.  Members of the Cabinet stand solidly behind the President.  A few local government units, who decided not to wait for a national policy, have passed local laws on reproductive health.  But they, too, want a national policy to be enacted as Catholic Church priests continue to use the Sunday Catholic mass to lambast government officials and leaders who support reproductive health, going so far as to call them “evil”.   They have taken back the threat of excommunication which they brandished earlier even as contraceptive users and those who support RH are not allowed to take communion.

The most important thing to remember is that the RH bill is a measure that aims to reduce differential access to reproductive health services and information.  It is the poor, and in particular women and their children who stand to benefit the most from the passage of this bill.

 

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