Juan Antonio A. Perez III, MD, MPH

IN mid-May, the United Nations Population Fund in the Philippines (UNFPA) and the Commission on Population and Development (POPCOM) launched the 2021 version of the State of the World Population report entitled, “My Body Is My Own: Claiming the Right to Autonomy and Self-Determination.”

The Philippines has chosen to focus on young women and girls undergoing early childbearing (and rearing their children as solo parents) as a country focus in this year’s theme of bodily autonomy.

In my message at the launch, I defined bodily autonomy as a young woman having the following: One, the power to make choices over one’s physical body and future, without the elements of violence and coercion. Two, it includes the choice on when or with whom to have sex, if at all. Three, it includes the choice on when or with whom one wants to become pregnant if at all. And four, the freedom to visit a doctor whenever one needs to.

It has often been said that society has more limits and licenses attached to the female body than for the male body. As a matter of fact, obscenity and community-scandal regulations are the only limits I can think of for the male body, and it applies equally to both female and male bodies, but not in the case of the breastfeeding mother nourishing her child in public which is being regulated in some societies.

How do we limit the females in the use of their bodies?

  • The Revised Penal Code says girls can start having sex at age 12 without the male being accused of rape (this is almost after the start of menses, which on average happens at the said age)
  • The same code and the anti-rape law (Republic Act 8353) allows rapists (who may have had sex with a girl before 12 years old) to be forgiven if he marries his victim
  • Sex with a girl aged below 12 is rape; from 12 onwards, it is labeled to “seduction”
  • Girls from 10 up to under 18 can be sexually active and have children, but they do not have access on their own to family planning or reproductive health services to prevent HIV or sexually transmitted diseases, according to the Supreme Court in 2014

In many instances, the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law, since 2012, has expanded the possibility that women will have their sexual and reproductive health rights recognized in a law that allows universal access to such health care information and services.

Where are the funds?

THERE are two barriers to universal realization of those sexual and reproductive health rights, though.

Money is one; and apparently, age is another.

While the Cabinet approved in 2019 a three-year program for population and family planning costing P10 billion, none of the expected funds were allocated by the Department of Budget and Management in 2020. Since family planning was not seen as essential to recovery from the pandemic, no funds were again allocated into the 2021 program.

Last March, however, President Duterte remarked that the family planning and population program needed to be reviewed as he wanted the programs to contribute to the easing of congestion in urban communities where Covid-19 continues to thrive. The National Economic and Development Authority, Department of Health and POPCOM have issued a memorandum asking for a boost in family planning and population development services in all local government units and for regional agencies to increase their support to LGUs with itinerant teams to provide permanent family planning methods which are in high demand.

That will only be half the problem solved.

Social protection

FOR bodily autonomy to be guaranteed in terms of sexual and reproductive health for minor girls who are sexually active, the Senate and House of Representatives must agree on a program to allow these minors to be given family planning and reproductive health services. Adolescent minors who are mothers also need social protection provided by local and national agencies as they remain vulnerable to economic and health shocks, while they remain solo parents.

It all begins by understanding that male and female bodies (and their owners) are not treated equally in this country in terms of their sexual and reproductive health and rights.

And age should not be a barrier. When it comes to child bearing and parenting, it is the minors who are most vulnerable, and their age should not stop us from protecting their health and rights.