Jomarie Oliva, 33, led an afternoon workshop with 10 teenagers on topics that many in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines consider taboo. The conversation included the reasons that some teens have sex.
“Out of curiosity?” Oliva asked the group? “For pleasure,” responded one of the teens, while the rest of the group laughed.
Later, Oliva talked about the responsibilities of parenthood as well as different types of birth control, including “abstinence, pills, condoms, IUDs, implants, injectables,” she said, before explaining each one.
Oliva is a community mobilizer for Likhaan Center for Women’s Health, a non-government organization that works on reproductive health, access to contraceptives and sex education.
In some countries, in-depth classroom discussions about sex and contraceptives are common for teenagers, but not in the Philippines. “Not every student gets sex education in schools,” Oliva told VOA. “You don’t always learn all the ways to protect yourself from unplanned pregnancies, how to use condoms and other contraceptives.”
Advocates for comprehensive sex education say the lack of lessons for many youths is one of the reasons one out of 10 births in the Philippines is by a mother younger than 19.
Government data reports the number of females ages 15 to 19 who became pregnant during the previous five years fell from 8.6% in 2017 to 5.4% in 2022. Health advocates, however, say they are very concerned that about 2,300 girls ages 10 to 14 gave birth in 2021.
“There are teens who don’t know that a woman can get pregnant the first time she has sex,” Oliva says. “Some kids think a girl needs to have sex multiple times to get pregnant.”
Oliva holds workshops in community centers and neighborhood gathering spots in metropolitan Manila. At a recent session, 17-year-old Hanah Ilajas listened carefully. Ilajas said this was first time anyone explained to her how birth control pills work.
“I’ve heard about pills before, but I only really learned about them now,” she said, adding that in school, her teachers don’t discuss contraceptives. “It’s just not something that really comes up.”
Sex education and access to contraceptives are controversial subjects in the Philippines, where the Catholic Church holds significant influence on a population that’s about 80% Catholic. The church fought a reproductive health law, passed in December 2012, that expanded sex education in public schools and made contraceptives available for free at public health clinics. Minors, however, can only legally access contraceptives with parental approval.
The Rev. Jerome Secillano, a spokesperson for the Catholics Bishops Conference of the Philippines, says teaching people about contraceptives might encourage them to use them. The Catholic Church advocates only for natural birth control methods and Secillano says for teens, the only one that should be encouraged is abstinence.
“We start by telling them that sex should be done not outside the marriage but inside the marriage,” Secillano said. “Secondly, do not use contraceptives, do not use pills, do not use condoms and thirdly, you need to preserve your body. You’re still young and sexual intercourse is not for your biological age.”
Erickson Bernardo, a youth advocacy officer for Likhaan, believes complete education for teens on all forms of birth control, including pills and condoms, is important. “You don’t actually encourage them to have sex, but basically you allow them to make responsible decisions,” Bernardo said.
Bernardo and other advocates for comprehensive sex education say in reality, many teens still aren’t getting these lessons in schools. Although the reproductive health law was passed in late 2012, it took the Department of Education more than five years to issue guidelines for comprehensive sexuality education. According to Bernardo, it still faces resistance
“There are some school administrators who are willing to adopt comprehensive sexuality education so long as not in their schools,” Bernardo said. The Department of Education did not answer questions, sent in writing from VOA, about implementation of comprehensive sexuality education.
Bernardo and Oliva say while the pace is slow, gradually more schools are teaching students about all methods of birth control. Both, however, say the issue also has roots in the home.
“Parents often shy away from having reproductive health discussions with their children,” Oliva said. “In some cases, it’s because it makes them uncomfortable and sometimes, they don’t have enough knowledge themselves.”
Seventeen-year-old Hanah Ilajas said participating in Oliva’s workshop was time well spent.
“It helped me understand things better,” she said.