Nat’l social emergency
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - November 13, 2019 - 12:00am

Until a few decades ago, “shotgun marriages” were still in vogue in this country.

I remember a guy barely out of his teens who was forced into such a marriage. He had gotten a teenager pregnant, and she had invited him to their town where her father was one of the wealthiest businessmen.

The guy was not allowed to leave the girl’s house unless his mother would come along to sign the civil marriage documents preparatory to a church wedding. The boy’s furious mother, believing that her son was not ready for marriage, refused to go, so the boy’s elder brother went to the town, where he found cops deployed at the home of the expectant teenage mom. The brother signed whatever needed to be signed to “free” the young father.

The wedding pushed through; the baby was delivered. As in most things that are forced, however, the young couple didn’t live happily ever after.

Such shotgun weddings must have been pretty common in those days. I remember reading of lot of such stories in the Tagalog illustrated comics magazines that I devoured when I was a kid.

The Roman Catholic faith taught us that the sanctity of marriage included the preservation of the bride’s virginity until the wedding night.

And if a girl got pregnant before then, the honorable, responsible thing to do for the “culprit” was to marry the expectant mother. A “disgrasyada” or unwed mother brought shame to a reputable family. If the guy had to be forced at gunpoint to marry the girl, then so be it.

Boys (and their parents) in those days typically didn’t like promiscuous girls or those they considered to be damaged goods, including rape victims. The boys wanted the brand-new article; they wanted to be the first with their bride.

In several movies, there were scenes depicting a girl who wanted to keep her pre-marital sexual escapades secret from her groom feigning virginity by screaming in pretended pain during intercourse and daubing any red liquid on the bedsheet on honeymoon night.

I don’t know if this mindset persists among today’s generation, or if youths still place a premium on marriage.

This point is intriguing as economic and population managers express concern about the Philippines having the highest number of teenage pregnancies among the six major economies in Southeast Asia.

*      *      *

“Piliin ang pangarap; huwag ipagpalit sa panandaling sarap.”

The loose translation is to choose to pursue your dream; don’t exchange it for temporary pleasure – a reference in this case to sex.

The message is directed at teenagers who are discovering their sexuality. Officials of the Commission on Population report that 210,240 babies are born to teenage mothers in this country annually, or an average of 576 babies every day. This is based on official government data, according to Lydio Español Jr., PopCom regional director for Metro Manila.

Worse, several of the births are from repeat pregnancies by teenage moms, with records showing girls as young as 10 having children.

The figures have become so alarming that PopCom, which is under the National Economic and Development Authority, is proposing that President Duterte issue an executive order declaring teen pregnancy a “national social emergency.”

The declaration will boost intervention efforts, Español explained, to minimize the incidence of children having children. He said studies indicate that one in three Filipino teens is sexually active; 78 percent do not practice safe sex and aren’t even aware of when a woman is fertile.

*      *      *

PopCom is working with certain lawmakers who can sponsor legislation that will make it easier for teenagers to have access to reproductive health services.

Basically, the proposal will allow teenagers to seek RH counseling from doctors or health centers even without parental consent. Adult consent will still be required, but a guardian such as an aunt, or even a social worker will do.

A state of national emergency can also speed up the incorporation of various aspects of the proposed “Comprehensive Sexuality Education” into regular school subjects – music and arts, physical education, values education, biology and social studies – from fifth grade onward.

Each pregnancy means a break from formal education. Young mothers can be embarrassed about being delayed in their education by a pregnancy, and then having to return to school a year or two behind former batch mates. Such teenage mothers may drop out of school altogether, never to return.

Español said the majority of teenage pregnancies occur among the poor, and the babies tend to suffer from health problems and underdevelopment. The highest incidences of teen pregnancies are recorded in Metro Manila, notably in the low-income communities in the city of Manila where 72 out of every 1,000 teens get pregnant, Español told “The Chiefs” recently on Cignal TV’s One News.

Español said it’s not unusual for such mothers to be the children of women who also gave birth in their teens. Such young mothers have no nannies to take care of the baby while they are in school. With their formal education disrupted and earning capacity consequently impaired, often for life, teenage pregnancies can perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

In terms of forgone earnings, a study conducted by the University of the Philippines School of Economics placed the annual losses due to teen pregnancies at P34 billion.

*      *      *

Studies indicate that the biggest cause of children having children is the lack of parental guidance, Español said. This is true especially in households where the parents work overseas. Social media has also contributed to teen sexual activity.

In launching a campaign to prevent teenage pregnancies, PopCom is not focusing on the value of virginity before marriage.

There are no studies on this subject, but virginity before marriage may be meaningless to younger generations of Filipinos, and for the poor for whom wedding ceremonies are too much of a hassle and a luxury beyond their reach.

Instead PopCom wants teens to think of their future, and the doors of opportunity that are opened by a college degree. Not everyone is a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, whose thought processes are far more advanced than anything that can be taught in university. And not everyone can drop out of college and become a movie superstar-turned-president like Joseph Estrada.

PopCom has adopted “Piliin ang pangarap, huwag ipagpalit sa panandaling sarap” as its slogan for its information campaign.

Inculcating this in the minds of adolescents will require getting everyone in our society on board.

SOCIAL EMERGENCY
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