(Editor's Note: The names of the women who shared their stories for this article were withheld to protect their privacy.)
Maeve has gone through enough pregnancy scares in her young adult life to know that being a mother is not really something she wants. Pandemic or not, becoming one entails a lot of responsibility and consequences, including how it could derail her plans and dreams as a 22-year old studying to become a medical doctor.
"But if I ever change my mind, I want it to happen when I want it," she told reportr, explaining why she's been seeking a birth control shot. Maeve could very well afford consulting a gynecologist for the protection she needs in order to have safe sex with her boyfriend. But growing up in a Catholic family, notwithstanding a physician mom, she still cannot risk getting found out.
As so, every three months she would line up as early as 6 a.m. in one of the clinics of Likhaan Center for Women's Health, a non-government organization that offers birth control services (among others) free of charge and without judgment. Such reflects the struggles of women in the Philippines, still very common despite the nine years since the Reproductive Health Law was enacted to provide accessible contraception and responsible sexual education.
"We had thought that after that long hurdle, many years of trying to pass the law, that things would be simpler. But it hasn’t been," Dr. Junice Melgar, Likhaan's Director told reportr. Since its founding in 1995, the NGO has been advocating for the health and rights of Filipino women, especially those in poor communities.
"It's been battle after battle," since the law was passed, reaching up all the way to the Supreme Court, Melgar said. First, a petition questioning the law's constitutionality took two years to resolve, then came a two-year ban on two contraceptive implants that science long-knew were non-abortifacients.
"You hardly see any dent in the sexual reproductive health of women in particular and this has been aggravated by COVID," Melgar said, noting this was evident in what Likhaan saw on-ground during the pandemic, when women with no means of transportation during the lockdowns would walk one to two hours just to avail their birth control services.
What makes it so hard?
Melgar said the Philippines' "very conservative religious traditions against women and sexuality" prevents groups like Likhaan from providing the most basic sexuality education.
"I was taught that the only thing I can do to take care of myself was to stay a virgin until marriage—a gift for my future husband. I’ve seen women getting called pokpok or malandi for doing the same thing that men literally do all the time," Maeve said. Her sentiment is shared by Lexi*, who attended catholic school from elementary to high school.
"I've always been taught that sexual health equals celibacy, and even early on at home, my parents would always tell us that sex is bad especially if you're young. They were teen parents themselves, who didn't want any of us following their footsteps," Lexi said.
"But eventually, my mom started talking to us about how sex could be a great thing if you've found the right partner at the right age. I just wish she had told us that from the start, instead of infusing it with so much shame. That doesn't really lead to better choices," she added.
Another problem, Melgar said, is the "tendency to belittle women in general and their problems including their very intimate and personal problems that are actually the ones that kill them in this country."
For every pregnancy, wanted or not, there’s a 15% chance of complications from childbirth that can be fatal. At Likhaan, they know of two teenagers during the pandemic who could not even go out of their place and died at home due to a delicate pregnancy.
"There really is this huge barrier, and it’s probably cultural, but it has affected policies," Melgar said, noting real problems like this would be solved if Filipino women were granted better and more compassionate choices they should've long had the right to, such as abortion.
"Even with the most effective contraceptives, there will still be failure, there will still be pregnancies. Abortion is the dream, actually," she said, noting that the lack of the legal right to do so here in the Philippines hasn't really stopped women from getting it.
They've just been doing it in an unsafe manner, which often leads to their deaths or serious maternal complications. "Our goal of eventually wanting to have abortion even for a limited situations is to save women’s life, in cases of rape for instance."
Sex is a perfectly human act
As a young woman, Maeve says the power to make choices about one's own body is something she wishes were at least taught to her as a child, even as the country's laws have yet to truly accord it.
"During my pregnancy scares, I would panic and cry and feel so helpless. If you get pregnant here, there’s really no other safe choice than keep the baby, which is just really frustrating. Until then, the only responsible thing for me to do is to take contraceptives," she said.
Before, she would overdose on 8 contraceptive pills, known as the Yuzpe method, for emergency contraception. This makes up for the lack of actual EC pills in Philippine pharmacies due to fears of it having an "abortifacient effect”, even as the World Health Organization says otherwise.
Unlike in government facilities, Likhaan doesn't ask for parental consent. Their centers are deliberately located in slum communities to cater to the underprivileged. "But if you are middle class and you really need to go, we would appreciate if you could just give a token or a donation so that the clinics would survive in the future, because we don’t charge," Melgar said.
Their clinics are run by very well-trained and competent nurses and midwives "who will not scold or make judgments on young people for exercising their sexual freedom".
"People think when there’s a disaster or there’s COVID, people stop having sex. That’s really not true. That is really when some people need to be intimate for comfort, for assurance, for the little things in life that do not cost intimacy. A crisis heightens that need for an intimate partner," she said.
"It’s a basic human need—realizing what sexuality is and how normal it is to want and desire somebody. If we are not far-sighted about what sex brings at a difficult time, and not protect young people, it's not just stupid of us. It's also unrealistic," she added.