Towards Universal Access for Reproductive Health in the Philippines

A new law that went into force on January 16 in the Philippines requires the government to meet the unmet need for voluntary family planning information and supplies, especially for the country's poorest people and marginalized groups. The law also requires that age-appropriate sexuality education be taught in all public schools.

Advocates hail the law as a breakthrough for women's health and rights and say it will reduce maternal deaths and unplanned pregnancies, especially among teenagers, bolster development and enable all segments of society to decide freely and responsibly when, whether and how often to have children. This is in line with the International Conference for Population and Development Programme for Action, a landmark consensus reached by 179 governments, including the Philippines, nearly two decades ago. This consensus reinforced an international agreement reached in 1968 at the International Conference on Human Rights, where the Philippines delegation was led by Raphael Salas, who later became the first executive director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.

The unmet need for voluntary family planning among the Philippines' poor has been high, leading many women and adolescents to become pregnant earlier and more often than they intend. On average, the country's poorest women have two more children than they say they want. The fertility rates among the poor are nearly three times higher than among the country's rich, who have for years enjoyed access to family planning through private providers.

In the Philippines -- and everywhere else -- the toll that unplanned pregnancies takes is high, especially for girls, who may drop out of school, get trapped in low-wage jobs, and are at increased risk of potentially fatal complications. Women who lack the power and means to decide how many children often become caught in a life-long downward cycle of poverty, exclusion, poor health, and even maternal death and disabilities.

The latest The State of World Population report, published by UNFPA, reminds the world that family planning is a long-established human right that unlocks the door to other rights and opportunities. And because it is a right, it must be made available to all, not just the wealthy or otherwise privileged. But across the developing world, family planning is still out of reach for 222 million women. Laws like the one just passed in the Philippines can go a long way towards enabling women, especially the poor and marginalized, to exercise their fundamental rights.

The potential rewards from universal access to family planning are numerous and indisputable. Research shows that family planning can empower a woman and transform her life, through higher incomes and educational attainment, better health, and greater involvement in her community and in her own household's affairs. Family planning is clearly one of the most critically important investments that we can make in health, in women's rights, and in the life trajectories of young people.

Expanding access to voluntary family planning and ensuring that all individuals, regardless of income or status, are able to exercise sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, is no small undertaking and requires more than simply increasing supplies of contraceptives. It is also necessary to tear down economic, social and other barriers that prevent hundreds of millions of women, men and young people from accessing information and services. The new law in the Philippines will help tear down some of these barriers and enable the country to move closer to achieving the Millennium Development Goal target of universal access to reproductive health by 2015.

The Philippines -- and the entire global human community -- has spoken: Family planning is here to stay. The next great challenge is to make it available to all, for the sake of equity, health, rights and empowerment.