When Susan Evangelista was teaching at the Palawan State University (PSU), she became concerned when many of her female students dropped out due to pregnancy. Some of them came back after having children, but many others “disappeared.”

“A lot of my girl students dropped out pregnant, although some girls came back after they gave birth. I had a number of them in my classes and I thought it was really admirable that they came back because it takes a major effort to do that,” she said.

“But many just disappeared. So I was concerned about them. You know you could just see what was going to happen to them. You just look around here and you get a feeling that there are awful lot of people with no healthcare.”

The retired literature professor observed that the number of students who dropped out because of unwanted pregnancy still outweighed the number of those who came to school after having their babies. She said one can only assume that the reasons for the girls’ not coming back are poverty, lack of support system or stigma.

More than 50% of pregnancies in the Philippines are unplanned and 14 women die every day due to pregnancy and child birth complications. Despite its Reproductive Health (RH) Law, the country still lacks the mechanisms to address reproductive health-related issues, thus non-government organizations (NGOs) and volunteer groups have tried to pitch in. One of them is Roots of Health based in Palawan.

Susan and her daughter, Amina Evangelista-Swanepoel, established Roots of Health in 2009 in their belief that it will help address the lack of RH education and services in Palawan and in the Philippines.  The NGO is actively involved in educating young people and women, and giving free access to maternal health services to help prevent unplanned pregnancies. It fills the vacuum in the province where 25% of pregnant women are teenagers.

Jofelle photo1
Mother and daughter Susan Evangelista (right) and Amina Evangelista-Swanepoel are behind Roots of Health, an NGO in the Philippines that provides free maternal and reproductive health services and education.

Roots of Health aims to prevent unwanted pregnancies by combining comprehensive health education and health services. It provides education sessions in local high schools and universities and community-based women’s groups that focused on health needs, sexuality, reproduction and family life. Its health services include sessions on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), pregnancy, delivery and pre-and post-natal care, contraceptives, breastfeeding, family relationships, nutrition and even budgeting.

The NGO’s high school program has taught over 16,000 students across Palawan. Topics include puberty, gender, basic sex education, self-esteem, personal dreams and goal-setting and healthy relationships. It also has youth advocates who are trained to be peer counselors the communities.

Mother and daughter, Amina and Susan, said the number of people they have reached might only be a fraction of the whole population of Palawan at currently more than 800,000 but the impact of Roots of Health is being felt with the education and services that it has provided.

“In the last two years, the teaching team has taught over 30,000 young people. At the end of 2016, we were providing free contraceptives to over 6,000 women who couldn’t afford it. It does make a difference. If you talk to a young person and to a young woman, they will tell you how it has changed their lives, so we’re changing things and we’re helping people to have better lives,” said Amina.

However, the environment for NGOs working in reproductive health in the country is challenging and at times frustrating. Culture and the influence of the religious groups, mainly the Catholic church make any discussion of sex and sexuality a taboo.

Jofelle photo3.jpg
Women visit the the Roots of Health office in Palawan, Philippines to access free        reproductive health services and education.

The biggest challenges

Amina explained, “My biggest problem with the Catholic church’s opposition is that they’re just ignoring the problems. They’re saying what things should be. They say parents, families, young people should do this and that, but they’re not doing anything to help the reality of what’s actually happening to people. It’s like they have their heads buried in the sand.”

For Susan, the pressure from the Catholic church is not much of an issue but the culture itself where talking about sex and sexuality is considered “bastos” or vulgar. “We have a lot of trouble convincing the Department of Education because they don’t even mention the church. They fall back on Filipino values and don’t want to talk about anything that they would consider disturbing,” said Susan.

Susan added, “There’s so much talk about how Filipinos are so liberated.  They don’t sound like, for instance, the women in Muslim countries who are thought to be more suppressed and mistreated.  (They think that) Filipinos are supposed to be very liberated.”

However, the success of the comprehensive sexuality education nationwide still depends on the Reproductive Health Law, which has met many roadblocks even before it was passed. President Rodrigo Duterte wants it implemented but the budget has yet to be allocated. Without funds, Amina said, it is deemed useless.

“For instance the Department of Education says, yes we will provide comprehensive sex education but money hasn’t been released for them to train their teachers. There aren’t new textbooks. The curriculum, some people say, has been finalized but I don’t think it really has,” she said.

Jofelle photo2.jpg
Staff of Roots of Health attend to women with reproductive health needs.

Another big challenge for Susan and Amina is to find funders for their projects. “We have partnerships with the Department of Health but generally, we don’t have any funders in the Philippines because reproductive health is so controversial. For international funders, things in the Philippines are not as bad as India, Burma or places in sub-Saharan Africa. So a lot of foundations that assist sexual reproductive health work don’t fund the Philippines,” Amina said.

But there’s always a silver lining. Roots of Health is one of the 23 NGOs worldwide recognized for outstanding work in the 2016 Stars Impact award that recognize organizations working on underserved children and communities. It came with US$50,000 that enabled them to hire four additional teachers and health workers.

Susan is ready for a second retirement soon because she will let her daughter and son-in-law run the organization fully. She longs for the day when the services of the Roots of Health are no longer needed because communities are empowered, and people could talk about sex and contraception, unwanted pregnancies and HIV without the taboos and prejudices.