The Forbidden Fruit: Stigmas on Early Conception
Updated: Jul 21, 2022
In the Philippines, there are different perceptions about sex for males and females. After males engage in sex, there is usually no change in how people treat them, “Wala naman kasing mawawala sa kanila dahil lalaki sila." Females, however, are treated very differently.
I will never forget that one rainy afternoon.
We were a long line of passengers, waiting for a jeepney to stop at the shed. I was probably the fifth person in line. The first three had grocery bags and goods in cardboard boxes. In front of me was a woman, and standing beside her was a young child in a school uniform. I didn’t pay any mind to anything or anyone. It was just my usual commute.
Then someone made what seemed like a ‘grand entrance.’ It felt like every person in line was eyeing her as she made her way past us. She looked like she was about my age at the time, around 15. It was impossible not to notice her.
She was not alone.
The bulge at her abdomen said so.
Blame it on history
While boarding jeepney, some of the passengers smirked and glanced at her. I even heard my seatmate say to his friend, “Ang aga naman lumandi” (“She started flirting early”).
In the Philippines, there are different perceptions about sex for males and females. After males engage in sex, there is usually no change in how people treat them, “Wala naman kasing mawawala sa kanila dahil lalaki sila” (“They will not lose anything after sex since they’re males”). Females, however, are treated very differently. They are seen as ‘easy-to-get’ and flirtatious, and even worse if they conceive a child out of wedlock.
This branding of teenage mothers as coquettes dates back to the Spanish colonization of the country. The Filipina, or originally the “Female Indio”, is described as “a chaste virgin who will yield only to her husband” (Rodriguez, 1990). Women are expected to be mere objects, obliged to fully submit themselves to male partners who control their reproductive and sexual capacity.
This social and cultural mindset may be one factor to consider with regard to the grim trends on maternal and reproductive health. Figures from the 2013 Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality (YAFS) showed that 14% of Filipino girls aged 15 to 19 are either pregnant at the time of the survey, or first-time mothers. Philippine Statistical Data from 2014 states that 24 infants are born of teenage mothers every hour. It is this statistic that ranked the Philippines as the country with the highest cases of teenage pregnancy in the Asia-Pacific region (Cruz, 2014).
Teenage pregnancy can be hazardous to the health of both mother and child, and this can be compounded by the fact that teenage mothers often do not seek regular prenatal care due to fear of public humiliation. According to UNICEF Philippines, 20% of maternal deaths in the country are among teenage mothers, with 17% among them involving fetal deaths.
‘Parental guidance is advised’
I was wondering what the mother and her young child thought of the pregnant teenager on the jeep with us. Did they see her as a regular person, or as a cautionary tale for the child?
Filipinos are sorely lacking in sexuality education, and usually such topics are not explicitly taught to the young. Many people prefer to use euphemisms and codenames instead of correct names for sexual organs. We use ‘bird,’ ‘hotdog’ or talong (eggplant) for the penis, and words like ‘flower,’ ‘tilapia’ or ‘mani (peanut)’ for the vagina. Parents tell children “Bata ka pa, wag mo munang alamin yan” (“You’re still young, you should not ask about that yet”) whenever they ask how they were made, or what these organs are for.
Sex, however, is no longer taboo in pop culture and media. Television, movies, and print are full sexual innuendo and sexual tension between characters. The Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) has set guidelines for rating media as requiring Patnubay at Gabay (Parental Guidance) or Striktong Patnubay at Gabay (Strict Parental Guidance). But there is no guarantee that parents really monitor what shows their children watch.
Such neglect can be harmful to children, as found in research from the non-profit organization RAND Corporation. Initial findings show that youth “with a high level of exposure to television shows with sexual content are twice as likely to get pregnant or impregnate someone” over a period of three years (Landau, 2008).
Filipino youth are starting to have sex at younger and younger ages. According to YAFS 4, the mean ages when males and females have their first sexual experience are 17.5 and 17.9 respectively. In 1994, it was 18.3 for males and 18.5 for females. In 2002, it was 17.6 and 18.2, respectively.
Among these figures, 77.9% of the respondents said they did not use any form of contraception (condom, pills, etc.) upon their first sexual encounter, saying they did not know about such things, and have never heard about them from their parents.
According to YAFS 4, about 17% of females aged 15 to 19 have been pregnant more than once.
War on stigma
In 2014, the Department of Health launched an infomercial about teenage pregnancy. It was a music video, featuring characters named “Gaga Girl” (representing all the females in the video) and “Bobo Boy” (all males in the video).
The video drew a lot of flak.
This is a persistent perception: adolescent parents are seen as stupid and useless, leading to alarming figures for incidences of early conception and poor maternal health. Their stories have a common theme: they have already been harsh with themselves. They stopped going to school, even if they still wanted to study, so they could take care of their children. They stopped going to malls and parks, even if they still want to go out, to avoid judgment and scrutiny. They stopped going to health and medical centers, even if they still need medical attention, since they do not know how to take care of themselves and their babies.
They are living with their mistakes, but we must all learn from them.
While I was revisiting that memory, I was ashamed for doing nothing. I saw all the judgment and heard all the whispers, but I kept silent.
Now, there are different ways to address the issue. As the “social media capital of the world,” we can voice concerns, build awareness, and share stories and information. There are also organizations such as UNICEF, Unilab Foundation, and Save the Children, who are open to volunteers in carrying out their missions.
Perhaps the most impactful way to help is to change our judgmental way of thinking. We must break the habit of labelling people and putting them in boxes. Parents should be more open with their children, even if they were still young. We should all do something, to make our nation stigma-free.
About the author: Gregg is fond of underground music and local independent films. He feels energized when it is raining. Even though his present course is BS Business Adminstration and Accountancy, he plans to go to medical school afterwards to become a surgeon and envisions of building a hospital someday.
Cruz, G.T. (2014). The Filipino family and youth in transition: policy and program directions [PDF document]. Retrieved from http://www.pcpd.ph/uploads/Filipino_Families_and_Youth_in_Transition.pdf
Landau, E. (2008, November 3). Study links sexual content on TV to teen pregnancy. CNN. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2008/HEALTH/11/03/teen.pregnancy/
Rivera, K. (2015). Quality care for vulnerable pregnant teens after Haiyan. Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org/philippines/reallives_24839.html#.WZZnWD4jHIV
Rodriguez, L.L. (1990). Patriarchy and women’s subordination in the Philippines. Review of Women’s Studies, 1(1). Retrieved from http://www.journals.upd.edu.ph/index.php/rws/article/view/3248/3046
Natividad, Josefina N., Demographic Research and Development Foundation (2013). 2013 Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Study. https://www.drdf.org.ph/yafs4