Women’s month: End early pregnancies, child marriages – The Forum

The Philippines dropped from the top 10 most gender-equal countries due to poor female representation in the Cabinet, as the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020 noted the eight-point decline to rank 16th out of 153 economies, from last year’s number 8 spot out of 149 countries.

The report cited the wide gap in political empowerment over the past two years because of the decreased number of female Cabinet officials, which fell from 25% to 10% between 2017 and 2019. 

This is the first time that the Philippines ranked lower than 10th in the gender index. Before the 2019 fall, its lowest rank was 10th in 2017; it was highest in 2013 at number 5.

But the Philippines maintained its high scores in female economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment and health and survival, still the highest in Asia and second in Asia Pacific for closing 80 percent of its gender gap in these aspects.

At the heart of all these favorable scores, however, is the reality of the manifold issues that confront women, especially girls, that need to be immediately turned around.

Benjamin de Leon, president of the Forum for Family Planning and Development, said, “The Philippines’ high grade in gender outcomes actually clouds another high, but an unpleasant one — having the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Southeast Asia.”

De Leon said achievements in female health and survival may look trivial if the situation of girls is examined more closely: the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) said an estimated 538 babies are born to teen girls aged 15-19 every single day. Among very young adolescents aged 10-14 years old, the PSA noted a rise: 1,958 births in 2017 to 2,250 in 2018.

“Girls who get pregnant early are not able to finish their schooling, which imperils their chances to be employed and have a better life. This endangers the girls’ entire future and entails huge losses to the country’s economy,” said de Leon.

The Forum, the frontline advocacy organization that educates communities on reproductive health and rights, sees the disparities replicated in poor households and communities around the country that lack education.

Apart from teen pregnancies, the Forum also bears witness to the harsh reality of child brides and the practice of early and forced marriages for girls.

De Leon said this is the reason for the Philippines having another high ranking. Unfortunately, the country has the 12th highest absolute number of child brides in the world at 726,000, according to 2018 data from UNICEF, which also noted that 15% of girls are married before their 18th birthday and 2% are married before age 15. Girls in the ARMM, Mimaropa and Soccsksargen marry earlier than those in other regions.

The UNICEF said child marriage is driven by gender inequality and the belief that women and girls are somehow inferior to men and boys. Trafficking of women and girls from rural areas to the cities for commercial sex and forced marriage is one factor, including the mail-order bride industry, and religious and cultural practices that allow marriage at the age of 15 for boys and at the onset of puberty for girls.

“Forced and early marriage places girls in a particularly vulnerable situation. We see the magnitude of this problem in areas in the country where forced marriage and the sexual exploitation of girls remain socially and culturally tolerated,” de Leon said.

De Leon lauded the move by some lawmakers to criminalize the facilitation and solemnization of child marriages. He also echoed the urgent calls by government, the POPCOM and NEDA in particular, to push for measures preventing teen pregnancies. He also pressed for comprehensive sexuality education and better access to services for adolescents.

The PSA said the Philippine population reaches 108.8 million by the end of 2020. More than 53 million are currently below 25 including 10.3 million adolescent girls 10-19 years old.

“The challenges are daunting but our opportunities to educate girls are unprecedented.” said de Leon. “We can achieve high marks if we ensure that girls are in school and enjoy better health, and provide a world where they have no limits to reach their potentials.”

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