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Tell me this story isn’t familiar.
Lisa* is 47 years old. She had been raising 7 children on her own since her third live-in partner George abandoned them 7 years ago. She has 2 older children from a previous relationship. She did odd jobs, selling sampaguita and medallions near the local church. Their second child Boboy has been living on the streets and addicted to rugby since he saw his father with another woman when he was 9. This year, Lisa left Metro Manila to go live with her new boyfriend in the province. She left the kids, most of them out-of-school youth, in the care of her 17-year-old daughter… who is 8 months pregnant by her boyfriend who is a carpenter.
This convoluted tale of Filipino women and children caught in a tragic cycle of poverty, overpopulation, lack of education, and neglect is sadly not at all uncommon here in the Philippines.
At the end of the day, the poor Filipino woman who has to take on odd jobs to feed her growing number of children stands to lose the most without a reproductive health law. And the millions of poor young women set on that similar life trajectory.
These women are the ones whose husbands or live-in-partners run off with other women, spend their days in drunken stupor, or spend their last buck at the local off-betting station. These same husbands subtly or not so subtly coerce them into sexual intercourse whenever possible. Unprotected and/or bound by social custom, the women oblige their husbands or live-in partners night after night after night, notwithstanding their growing number of children. They are the ones who cannot afford any means of artificial contraception even if they need it the most.
They are the ones who are in such oppressive relationships that they cannot say no to their husbands and live-in partners even when the natural family planning method says they should not have sex on nights when they are likely to get pregnant. And they become pregnant, of course.
When push comes to shove, men come and go, while the women are left to fend for themselves and their children who are often as many as seven or eight in the brood.
Sadly, this story is not all that uncommon in our country.
More tragically, these stories could have a better ending if women were better educated about their sexuality, marital rights, and reproductive health. At the very least, they could have fewer children if they could go to their nearest health center to choose a family planning method that’s right for them.
Priests and middle-class pro-life advocates will never know what it is like to be that poor young woman trapped in an oppressive relationship with no recourse and support from the government about their reproductive health and rights.
They will never know what it is like to ever sleep in a 5-square-meter barong-barong with 6 of their children after a full day’s work selling sampaguita on the streets to make ends meet only to be accosted by a drunken husband whose marital rights include a right to their wife’s body on any given night.
This reproductive health bill will not solve all their life’s problems nor will it be a comprehensive solution addressing women’s poverty, inequality, and inequity, but this will certainly provide them an opportunity to change the trajectory of their lives.
A good reproductive health law allows more women to learn more about their reproductive health and rights. It allows women to have the capacity to choose family planning methods depending on their conscience and life situation. For once in their lives, the government can give them this kind of support. Poverty will still be there. Oppressive relationships will still be there. With such a law, women can go to the nearest health center, be educated about their health, and decide to be responsible for managing the size of their families. This may be only one step, but it is a crucial one for it may spell the difference between struggling to support a family of four and losing the capacity to support the family with ten starving mouths to feed!