Poor women in RP want birth control

Published by rudy Date posted on January 8, 2009

Struggling with a daily meal budget of less than $2 a day for a family of 12, Floriza Bacli said she was happy to spoil her children a bit on New Year’s Eve with something special—half kilo of fried chicken and a quarter kilo of hotdogs.

Squeezed inside a tiny makeshift shack made of galvanized steel and wood with her 10 underage children, 37-year-old Floriza said the family had fun on the New Year’s Eve feast, or the media noche.

“I wished my family would be far from sickness, even though we might not get rid of poverty,” Floriza said.

The mother of 10 said she hid another seemingly more far-reaching wish in her heart. “Wouldn’t it be nice if someone can pay the college fees for my two eldest daughters who are finishing high school this April,” she added.

College remains a remote dream for Floriza’s family that depends on her husband’s meager income of P350 (about $7) a day as a pedicab driver. The husband might return home with only P150 (about $3) in those low season days when there are not so many tourists.

But Floriza said she remained hopeful for the New Year, at least there would be no more unwanted pregnancy to worry about. She got the yearned-for tubal ligation in July, an operation that cost around P500 (about $10) at a local clinic but would nevertheless effectively buffer the child-feeding burden of the family.

“We really can’t afford to provide for more. The money we earned is barely enough for our daily meals,” Floriza said. Like most poor Filipino women, she had no idea of family planning until life became tough after the birth of her sixth child.

She thought about condoms, but they were not quite accessible. She thought about contraceptive pills, but was told that she had varicose veins. Floriza said if she had known that a ligation was so simple and relatively harmless, she would have had it done earlier.

A right deprived

In a country where a woman has 3.05 children on average and artificial birth-control methods are frowned upon by the dominating Catholic Church, Floriza was not alone in wanting to plan pregnancies. She was lucky to get one before it was too late.

According to a United Nations Population Fund report, half of the Philippines’ 3.1 million pregnancies every year are unwanted or unintended, about one third of which end in abortion. About 10 women in the Philippines die every day for giving birth. Death occurred to mothers who are either too young or too old or those who have more than three previous births with dangerously short intervals.

Surveys also showed that more than 60 percent of mothers do not want additional children, while two out of five women who want to use contraceptives do not have access to them.

Fearing the withdraw of support from the Roman Catholic Church which counts 80 percent of the approximately 90 million Filipinos as followers, the national government has been cautious to widely and effectively promoting the use of contraceptives, proper sex education in schools, and free birth control services to the poor.

Baby ‘factory’

In Barangay Maisan where Floriza lives, visitors may be overwhelmed by the number of children, virtually everywhere in the crowded and poverty-dripping squatter community. Toddlers hang on to their mother’s shirts, whose arms are used to carry a smaller infant. Babies are being openly breast-fed while mothers yell at their other children chasing each other in the courtyard.

“Women in this Barangay know about ligation but few can actually afford one due to its medical cost and other inconveniences,” Floriza said.

Carlos Celdran, a local advocate for women’s reproductive rights who paid for Floriza’s ligation, said every time he went through squatter communities to give way condoms and birth control pills, people eagerly asked for them and the stocks he bought out of his own pocket from pharmacies would soon run out.

“They want it; they need it, and they use it,” Celdran said. “Birth control is something we want but not given to us. It is a right deprived rather than personal faith.”

“A pack of condoms that cost P5 is still too expensive for the poor. It shouldn’t be that only rich people can plan the family,” said Celdran, whose regular day job is guiding tourists around old towns of Manila and volunteer to help squatter women plan their pregnancies and find affordable medical services on birth control.

The hurdle facing people like Celdran, however, is big and quite visible.

Blocks away from Barangay Maisan stands the compound of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), the seat of the Church authority in the country. A banner declaring “pro-God, pro-Life, pro-Family, No to DEATH bills, No to RH [Reproductive Health] bills” at the entrance clearly demonstrated that any progress in family planning in this Catholics dominating country wouldn’t come around without overcoming strong resistance.

Bill shall pass

Because of the Church’s strong opposition, a Congress bill promoting sex education, the use of contraceptives and accessible birth control medical services on the national level, has never gone out of the House of Representatives since the introduction of its first draft in 1988.

In a statement issued in November, Archbishop Angel Lagdameo of Jaro, president of the bishops’ conference, said the reproductive health bill in its present form “contains fatal flaws” as it poses a serious threat to life of infants in the womb and violates the “sacredness of life from conception.”

The Church branded the bill as “anti-life” and said it would promote abortion, even its provisions do not legalize or encourage it.

“We admonish those who are promoting the Bill to consider these matters. It is the duty of every Catholic faithful to form and conform their consciences to the moral teaching of the Church,” Lagdameo said.

Lawmakers vying for a stable political career were reluctant to ire the Church to openly and aggressively promote birth control and family planning, thus many remained closet supporters of the controversial bill.

Urgent need

Congressman Edcel Lagman, principal author of the current draft of the reproductive bill, said in an interview that there is an urgent need to guard the freedom of informed choice so that each couple can decide what family planning method would be best for them based on their own beliefs and conscience, with neither the State nor the Church dictating to them

Lagman told Xinhua news agency in an interview that with the support of high-profile politicians, mainstream media, and the civil society, indications for the passage of the bill are now “very encouraging.”

“We have 113 co-authors of the bill apart from the two dozen congressmen who have committed to voting for the bill,” Lagman said, adding that only 86 votes from the 238-member House of Representatives are needed to endorse it.

A Social Weather Station Survey (SWS) conducted in September 2007 finds seven out of every 10 Philippine adults being polled said they favor the passage of the controversial bill.

“The bill shall pass. Because our chances are big as the Catholic Church is divided and the opposition is not as strong as in 1990s,” Celdran said. “But we could still lose the game, most of the congressmen on our side are absent or are forced to be absent on the voting day.”

Not helpful

To Floriza, the bickering in Congress seems remote and not of her concern. But she thinks it will be a good idea for schools to provide proper sex education to her daughters to teach them things like how to use condoms and how to avoid unwanted pregnancies.

Washing piles of dirty clothes of her kids at the street corner facing the country’s oldest Baroque-styled edifice San Agustin Church, Floriza said she was too shy and too lack of knowledge to teach her daughters.

Floriza said what she did was simply forbidding her daughters to date boys before they graduate from high school.

“I often warned them not to follow my footsteps. I had learnt the lessons,” she said.  –Xinhua

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