(19 May 2021) Despite registering encouraging numbers in the level of Filipino women’s decision-making on healthcare, sexual and reproductive health, and rights (SRHR), the country’s 20 million-plus young people continue to struggle in implementing their rights to bodily autonomy as practices of child marriage, experiences of gender-based violence, and lack of access to credible information and services for reproductive health persists.

The latest State of the World Population (SWOP) report of UNFPA,  the United Nations Population Fund,  entitled, “My Body Is My Own: Claiming the Right to Autonomy and Self-Determination,” highlights the women’s power to control their own bodies — and its link to the degree of control they have in other dimensions of their lives. The document reports the reality that millions of women and young girls are denied their right to say no to sex, agree to the choice of a partner in marriage, or the right moment to have a child. Worldwide, the report states that women only enjoy just 75% of men’s legal rights, despite constitutional guarantees of gender equality in many countries.

In the Philippines, between 2007 and 2018, the proportion of surveyed women aged 15 to 49 who make their own decision concerning health care, SRHR—mainly, contraception and sex with their husbands or partners—is at 81%. Those who have the power to say no to sex are at 88%; those who have decisions on contraception, 94%; and those who can decide on health care, 97%.

The Philippines, compared to other countries, ranks better in terms of the ability of women aged 15 to 49 to make decisions regarding sexual and reproductive health and rights. However, UNFPA Philippines Country Representative Dr. Leila Joudane reveals that there are still areas where the country can do better in ensuring that women and girls exercise their bodily autonomy. In particular, she highlights the need to address the disparities across income, age, level of education, and geographic location in realizing this right.

Another critical point of emphasis during the event is the challenges young Filipinos face in realizing their right to bodily autonomy. “Adolescents in the Philippines continue to face cultural and systemic barriers in realizing their rights for bodily autonomy,” explained Undersecretary for Population and Development Juan Antonio Perez III, MD, MPH. “For instance, the alarming statistics of adolescent pregnancy is a result of our young people’s inability to realize their rights to autonomy and self-determination.”

Even before the pandemic, the Philippines face high adolescent pregnancy rates as 1 in 5 girls already become mothers by the age of 19. The country has one of the highest adolescent birth rates in the ASEAN country with 47 births per 1000 women aged 15-19 per year – higher than the average adolescent birth rates of 44 globally and 33.5 in the ASEAN region.

Adolescent pregnancies are often not a result of a deliberate choice but a result of restrictive policies, sex without consent, harmful social norms, and lack of information.

To address such, the POPCOM’s Executive Director believes the Philippine government should make investments in key programs that will protect the rights of young people for self-determination: “These will be vital, especially about their bodies, and revise the policies that disadvantage our young people in realizing these related rights.”

UNFPA Philippines Country Representative adds, “When individuals, women and young people, in particular, have control over their bodies, they ultimately have control over the other aspects of their well-being, lives, and futures. Such individual empowerment likewise empowers families, communities, and the whole country.”