General Santos City, Philippines—Wella Taniola never expected to be a mother at age 21. She was unprepared and clueless about how best to stay healthy for herself and her baby.
And she’s not alone. Of the 1.2 billion adolescents in the world today, 88 percent live in low- and middle-income countries where access to reproductive and sexual health education can be difficult to access. This February, Jhpiego, a Johns Hopkins University-affiliated international, nonprofit health organization, convened experts to discuss new ways to improve adolescent health and reach the estimated 16 million young girls giving birth each year—95 percent of whom live in the developing world.
Today, Wella is a midwife-in-training, sharing her experience with high school students to give them the knowledge and means to delay pregnancy until they are physically and emotionally ready to be parents.
“Is anyone ever ready to have a baby, especially if it is unplanned? If it comes very early like in the situation I was in, I just had to face it and learn my lessons,” Taniola explained during an adolescent and youth health forum sponsored by the MindanaoHealth Project, which is supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Jhpiego, along with RTI International, the local government of General Santos City, the Family Planning Organization of the Philippines and the national government agencies of South Cotabato, Cotabato City, Cotabato Province, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani and General Santos City, known collectively as SOCCSKSARGEN.
Taniola, 26, and the mother of a five-year-old, knows too well that young people often engage in risky behaviors because of problems at home. When she was 20, her parents separated and had new families of their own. Taniola decided then to leave school and start working. She sought comfort from her friends and closest confidant who later became the father of her child.
Throughout her pregnancy, she had no peer counselors or place to receive basic reproductive health information, did not even seek help from her mother. Her experience is not dissimilar to that of most young people in the region. Fifty-six percent of youth in the Philippines have no source of sexual education, and often seek the advice of peers or friends, who may themselves lack knowledge on reproductive health.
Students attending the adolescent health forum came from the region of SOCCSKSARGEN, where one in every four youths aged 15 to 24 has engaged in premarital sex. The majority of the youth (91 percent) had unprotected sex during their first premarital sexual experience, according to the 2013 Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Study. These practices put young women at risk of complications associated with early and unplanned pregnancies.
“It is really temptations and curiosity that draw young people toward doing risky actions and indulging in early sexual activities,” said 16-year-old Russel Maravilla, one of the 250 participants encouraged to reflect on how they could address adolescent and youth reproductive health issues.
As part of the MindanaoHealth Project, the forum helped raise awareness and engage youth as key stakeholders. The project implements training on an adolescent job aid to build the capacity of health service providers in addressing the unique needs of young people for maternal, newborn and child health and nutrition, as well as family planning services. The project also focuses on training on peer education—or Usapang Barkadahan (teenage discussions)—to develop youth leaders who may be able to assist their contemporaries as they encounter reproductive health issues.
Students at the Young People’s Marketplace of Ideas forum ended the day by signing a commitment wall. Shirlyn Bañas-Nograles, the Vice Mayor of General Santos City, did the same, and publicly committed to pass legislation to address needs identified by participating adolescents and youth.