Originally published in ARROW for Change (AFC) Vol. 12 No. 3 2006
In the Philippines, punitive laws and puritanical views make access to safe abortion services very difficult for adult women.¹ This difficulty is even greater for young women, most of whom are financially dependent on their parents or not accorded adult privileges even when contributing to family income. Lack of funds (a surgical abortion in a clinic costs US$73-2732), practically no information on safe methods and where to get them, and worrying about family reaction if found to have undergone abortion are more than enough reasons for most young women to continue the pregnancy.
Despite these impediments, induced abortions are common. The Guttmacher Institute estimates that 473,000 induced abortions are done every year.² A nationwide survey of women of reproductive age also revealed that almost half of abortion attempts occur among young women: 16% among teenagers and 30% among women aged 20-24.² Because of the abovementioned obstacles, however, most young women resort to dangerous and unsafe abortion procedures. The Guttmacher Institute reports that 78,000 women are treated in hospitals yearly for complications due to abortion. Others are less fortunate—800 deaths due to abortion complications are estimated yearly.² Abortion is rarely discussed in the Philippines, even in the private realm, and the stigma associated with abortion is so strong that a young woman facing an unintended and unwanted pregnancy is still more likely to keep this to herself and settle for harmful and ineffective methods. Mainstream public discourse, on the other hand, tend to see abortions as ‘killing babies.’ Frames that feature the perspectives and realities of women who have abortions, argue for abortion as a woman’s right, or raise unsafe abortion as a public health concern, are rarely used.
Given this context, some women’s groups like Likhaan are focusing their efforts on creating and nurturing safe public spaces for discussing abortion. In doing this, Likhaan hopes that more women will break the silence and their isolation around the issue, share their situation with the organisations’ health workers and learn about available options. Aside from speaking at schools, at events of other groups and in the media upon request, Likhaan conducts education sessions and film showings on abortion
in various communities. Likhaan also reaches out to young women through its tie-up with PiLaKK Youth, an urban poor federation advocating for health rights of young women, gays and lesbians, and which also stages short plays featuring abortion and other related topics for grassroots communities. Providing initial input helps open young women’s hearts and minds to know themselves better. This eventually helps them to make informed decisions during critical situations, as when unintended pregnancy occurs. Other creative formats, such as plays and pocketbooks, are also combined with the information activities. The play “Buhay Namin” (Our Lives) presents the different situations women face and their varying feelings toward abortion. Based on Likhaan’s research on women’s abortion experiences, the play has been video-recorded and is used in the youth education sessions. The pocketbook series on abortion, which are written by feminist writers, feature situations and heroines that are based on real life and real women’s perspectives.
For young women who are in the critical situation of facing an unintended pregnancy, Likhaan offers counselling. Eventually, these young women are referred to trained professionals who can counsel them better on their situation. Contraceptive provision for the youth—which is a crucial complementary service that would help prevent unintended pregnancies—is in the same problematic spectrum as abortion services. Likhaan and PiLaKK encourage sexually active youth to use contraceptives. As sex outside of marriage is considered a taboo (especially for young women), many prefer not to be seen in Likhaan clinics despite assurance of confidential and non-judgemental services for fear that this will reach the knowledge of parents. Likhaan and PiLaKK address this problem through covert contraceptive counselling, wherein youth leaders explain easier-to-use methods like condoms. Youth members may also consult community clinicians in various places like a peer’s house or the mall, and clinicians come during meetings to provide counselling and services.
Advocacies are started from the search for solutions to real-life problems. Information may be far from access, but it brings young women a step nearer to safety. Eventually, Likhaan hopes that information dissemination, combined with counselling and contraceptive provision, will encourage more young women to advocate for wider access to safe abortion services that can help save other lives.
1 The Philippine law can be interpreted as permitting abortion to save a pregnant woman’s life, but very few doctors would risk doing abortions openly if at all. Abortion is also seen as immoral in this predominantly Roman Catholic country.
2 Singh, S. [et al.]. 2006. Unintended Pregnancy and Induced Abortion in the Philippines: Causes and Consequences.New York: Guttmacher Institute. 40p.