One in 10 Filipino girls aged 15-19 have begun childbearing;  1 in 3 young people are engaging in early, unprotected sex, and 1 in 4 women are experiencing spousal violence. Further, one-fifth of the Philippines’ population — around 22 million Filipinos — live on incomes that fall below the minimum required to survive for a month.

The Philippines struggles with these dribble of statistics as it recalls that it signed up to an agenda 25 years ago to transform those troubling numbers to zero.

In 1994, during the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, this agenda in the Programme of Action that was signed by 179 countries including the Philippines. The ICPD became a watershed because it altered the traditional global discussion of population control that merely focused on counting the number of people to population management. The latter placed  human aspirations high in development planning.

By putting ahead people’s rights to a full, comprehensive reproductive health care, the ICPD also initiated the discussion of gender equality that called on countries to include in their development plans the sexual and reproductive health and rights for men and women as well as empowerment of women and girls.

The Philippines is sending off a delegation next week, from November 12 to 14, to Nairobi, Kenya for the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25. The  conference, co-convened by the governments of Kenya and Denmark and the United Nations Population Fund, seeks to review the progress of its population management program and renew its commitment it made in Cairo in 1994 as it anticipates the culmination  of the ICPD agenda by 2030.

The Nairobi Summit aims to remind countries of their commitments toward achieving zero unmet need for family planning information and services, zero preventable maternal deaths, and zero sexual and gender-based violence and harmful practices against women and girls.

Since signing up to the ICPD-POA in 1994, other countries have wanted to emulate the Philippines’ work on legislation and policy-making for sexual and reproductive health and rights, gender equality and women empowerment. In fact, the Philippines enjoys a favorable 8th rank in the global gender equality index of the 2018 World Economic Forum’s list of 149 countries for closing 80% of its gender gap in the areas of educational reach, labor, political empowerment, health and survival.

In 2012, the country passed the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law (Republic Act 10354) or the RPRH Law after more than a decade of advocating for it.  In 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte issued Executive Order No. 12 that tasked local governments to implement the “zero unmet need for modern family planning” program to poor households by 2018 and beyond. Subsequently, the Universal Health Care (UHC) Law (RA 11223) that provides equitable and affordable health care was enacted on October 2019.

But the legal gains belie the situation. The country is still halfway in its ICPD goals until 2030. In the run-up to Nairobi, the government and its civil society partners drummed up the urgency to arrest teen pregnancies which Socio-economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia dramatically called  “national social emergency.”

A “No more children having children” campaign was launched where Socioeconomic Planning Undersecretary and Commission on Population executive director Dr. Juan Antonio Perez called for the enactment of the “teenage pregnancy bill” in Congress and asked government partners to push for its passage into law.

Pernia, who heads the country’s delegation to Nairobi, said that if the country is able to sustain what it has achieved in the past 25 years, it will continue inching its way towards its dream of achieving a “demographic dividend” that is characterized by economic growth resulting from a productive work force.

Accordingly, a demographic dividend is achieved when the population of individuals in the productive ages 15-64 is bigger than the population of two kinds of dependents: children aged 14 and below and older persons aged 64 and up.

Development planners say this population structure,  premised on decreasing death and birth rates, will bring economic growth from a workforce that  generates higher income and a lesser population of dependents. The concept is  also called “demographic-economic window of opportunity” because the government is able to put more resources in health, nutrition, education and social services.

Pernia said this demographic dream looks promising but not without challenges. He cited the unmet need in family planning, or the percentage of women of reproductive age who want to stop or delay childbearing but are not using any method of contraception.

The 2017 National Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) conducted by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) said 75 percent, or 3 of 4 women in the childbearing ages of 15-49 want to have 2 children; many women want to stop having children and others want to have children at a later time to prevent pregnancies occurring too close to each other.

The NDHS noted a 31% rate of unmet need, and based on PSA’s 2018 population estimates of 27.7 million women aged 15-49 by the end of 2018, the unmet need for family planning would mean roughly more than 8 million women.

“Even the poor want just 2 or 3 children but they end up with 6, that is why it is difficult to reduce poverty,” said Pernia. This is happening despite the noted decrease in fertility rate or the number of children per woman at 2.7 on the average.

Perez said the  high adolescent birth rates will delay the Philippines’ progress toward reaping the benefits of its demographic dividend. “If we will be in a status quo scenario, we have to wait until the 2050s to experience and reap its rewards, or miss it completely.”

Read related article: Gov’t stirs Pinoy machismo on reproductive health roles

Women Writing Women Philippines is part of the Philippine delegation to the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25.