Children, children everywhere

By Ted Lerner, Asia Times, 15 January 2003

MANILA—Every night of the week Nina cruises the strip of honky-tonk bars on Fields Avenue in Angeles City carrying a bucket full of peanuts and candies, which she sells to the foreign and Filipino customers ogling girls and playing pool. But it's not the stunning array of snacks that Nina sells that is of any particular interest. Nina is obviously very pregnant, a fact that she is obviously proud of.

This is numbers nine and 10, she says with a broad smile as she points to her bulging belly. Forget for a moment that this woman, who could give birth any day, is traipsing up and down the street selling snacks. What's more astonishing is that she says she is only 30 years old.

You see, I'm always having twins. This is my third twin. Nina says all her children have been fathered by the same Filipino. He is jobless and lives with the other children and her mother down south in the province of Negros. She stays in Angeles and sells snacks and sends her meager earnings back to the family.

He's not my husband, she smiles. He's my boyfriend. But he loves me very much. I don't believe in marriage. I believe in true love. And what about after this pregnancy? Will she go for numbers 11 and 12?

I think after this, she says, still smiling, I'm going to have the line cut. OK, I gotta go. I got mouths to feed, yeh?

Perhaps what's more amazing than this young woman with so many children is the fact that in the Philippines, Nina's story is as common as a bowl of rice, as a swaying coconut tree. How many other stories like Nina's will walk by her out on the dark streets? Almost anywhere one travels in the Philippines, you could select women at random and you'd likely hear similar stories. Stories of children, children everywhere, stashed in the provinces where they can live on mere pesos a day. What happens to all these children everybody's having in this country? And will they too each have handfuls of children when then grow up?

Just as astounding and, yes, frightening as the reality out on the streets and in the provinces are the cold hard numbers and statistics. According to the Family Planning Organization of the Philippines (FPOP), the longest-running and largest non-governmental organization (NGO) of its kind in the country, the Philippines' population stood at 75.3 million in 1998, making it the 14th most populous nation in the world. With one of the highest population growth rates in Asia at 2.3 percent annually, the Philippines' population will rise to 116.8 million by 2025. Already the population density of the Philippines is nearly double the Southeast Asian average and is exceeded only by that of Singapore.

To put the annual growth rate in population in another light, consider the economic growth rate of the Philippines, which over the past few years has ranged from 2-4 percent, depending on which figures are used. Even giving leeway on the liberal side, 4 percent economic growth coupled with a 2.3 percent population growth means the Philippines will achieve practically nothing in the entire coming century in trying to rescue and uplift the tens of millions who scrounge for their daily bread.

In a country mired in political and economic crisis, where the politicians constantly battle for turf while more than 50 percent of the people wallow in abject poverty, and where even the small middle class now finds itself slipping toward the precipice, one might assume that the population explosion in the Philippines would be of vital importance and given dire urgency by the government. The reality, however, couldn't be more different. In fact with the current dispensation in place, it could well be argued that many gains made by NGOs such as FPOP over the past decade have actually been reversed.

FPOP was established in 1969 with the goal of providing family-planning services. Its stated goals are to ensure universal access to quality family-planning information; education and services; to increase adolescent involvement in addressing their sexual and reproductive concerns; and to mobilize public support to safeguard the individual right to family planning. The organization currently operates 26 chapters and 35 clinics throughout the Philippines and handles nearly 200,000 women annually.

We offer choices so they can choose what's best for them, FPOP's executive director, Dora Raterta, told Asia Times Online. However, in a country where the powerful Roman Catholic Church plays a major role in not only daily life but also political life, the full range of choices is not readily available to a good portion of the population.

The government has a duty to provide education and services, Raterta said. Yet there is no national legislated policy to ensure the right to contraception. Instead the government takes its lead from the church, which is 100 percent against any and all artificial contraception, including condoms. The current government wants to mainstream natural family-planning methods. This would curtail our efforts.

In the early and mid-1990s, under the presidency of Fidel Ramos, the government took an active role in trying to educate men and women about the full range of choices available to them, including artificial contraception. Although the church vigorously disapproved, Raterta says the level of informed choice then was much better. Still, she said, promoting contraception in the Philippines is an issue many local and national leaders would just as soon shy away from.

There's a lack of political will, she said. Not all government units are resolute. They don't have it as a priority. Incredibly, the current mayor of Manila has decreed that artificial contraception is not to be made available in his city, save for condoms at the drugstore.

The Reproductive Health Care Act, which would put the government squarely behind promoting the full range of choice in family-planning education, including artificial methods, is currently pending in the House of Representatives. Groups such as FPOP are vigorously supporting bill. As could be expected, however, the bill is also receiving stiff resistance. According to Raterta, those against the bill, including and especially the Catholic Church, find three contentious issues in the initiative. For one, the opponents claim that all artificial methods of contraception, including the use of condoms, are equivalent to causing an abortion, as even the sperm and egg are considered alive. Second, only parents should teach sexuality, not the state, nor the schools. And third, sex is for procreation only.

Raterta said the bill has a 50-50 chance of passing. But even if it does pass, the problem then is whether the president will sign it. All indications are that she will not sign the bill. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is known to be very religious and also close to the Catholic hierarchy in the Philippines.

The president will go for whatever the church says, Raterta said. It is her conviction.

She's been very vague on the issue, said Mary Ann Godez, FPOP's executive officer. She recognizes that everyone has a right to know and have an informed choice. But then government says that population is never a problem. Indeed the church and its supporters go as far as claiming that the more people there are, the better. In an interview with the Asia Times Online, Monsignor Hernando Carbonel, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, the umbrella group that oversees the powerful Catholic hierarchy, actually debunked the entire myth of a population explosion.

It's not the population that is the problem, he said. It's the great disparity of wealth. If the wealthy would share what they have, then the population would not be a problem. FPOP's Raterta insists, however, that money is hardly the issue.

It's not just about money, she said. We face women every day. There are a lot of other issues. High-risk pregnancies such as having children too close together. Lack of education. Too many pregnancies. The quality of life at the micro level. Raterta claims also that opponents of responsible family planning often twist the issue by saying that family-planning organizations such as FPOP want to dictate how many children people can have.

We don't want to tell people how many children they can have, she said. We want to educate people as to their rights and choices.

On top of being up against powerful interests, family-planning advocates in the Philippines also must deal with particular social mores. Many Filipino men, for instance, especially those of the lower classes in the provinces, refuse to wear condoms. It's called the macho system, where sex must be skin to skin or it isn't any good.

It is this kind of social gauntlet that has led to some fascinating techniques being employed by NGOs to spread their message. At one recent professional boxing match, a non-profit group called DKT signed on as the major sponsor. DKT is a subsidized NGO that distributes and sells Trust condoms at a nominal cost to help curb the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and to help curb runaway population growth.

DKT's marketing strategy included the appearance of the Trust mascot, known as Super T. This giant blue phallic-symbol superhero stood well over 180 centimeters tall and wore dark-blue boots, blue trunks, blue gloves, blue goggles and a blue cape. He had a wide smile permanently splashed across his face and the capital letters ST embossed on his muscular chest. His bald blue head was also pointed at the top.

Super T was the hit of the night as he paraded around the ballroom, always ready with a hearty handshake. On top of this, Trust condom banners were hanging all over the ballroom and could clearly be seen on TV. As could the corner pads in the ring, which were emblazoned with the Trust logo. A giant blow-up balloon version of Super T stood in the back of the room and children ran around and punched and jumped on it the whole night. Between fights Super T himself jumped into the ring and tossed hundreds of prizes and giveaways into the crowd. Yes, Super T was tossing condoms into the audience.

This being the conservative Philippines, however, meant that Super T couldn't exactly just toss a foil condom package into the crowd. Instead he threw hundreds of key chains into the audience and inside each key chain was a condom. There were also lots of blue Trust T-shirts given away as well. Not only did the T-shirts come with Super T's picture splashed across the front, but they also came with a brand-new condom sewn into the left sleeve. And don't for a minute think the crowd was ashamed or upset. Filipinos love anything for free and the crowd eagerly fought for and grabbed every single free condom.

While products such as beer and hardware are usually the typical sponsors of fight cards, one of the marketing managers of DKT on hand pointed out why they considered boxing to be the perfect venue to promote their cause. Boxing, she said, is watched mostly by men. And Filipino men, she noted, have this macho image they often want to uphold and, thus, many don't want to wear condoms. The men who watch boxing come from all levels of Filipino society, but the sport is most popular amongst the masses, especially the middle and lower classes. These are the people DKT wants to reach, as they are likely to be ignorant of sexually transmitted diseases. They are also the ones having way too many babies, which many cannot afford to raise.

While it may be hard to imagine a boxing event as being on the forefront of the gargantuan task to educate and promote responsible family planning and the fight to stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, obviously, using a blue superhero phallic symbol with free condoms to give away is quite a clever idea. Clearly, though, that and other private measures will have little lasting effect unless the government puts its muscle into fully educating a populace that seems to expand exponentially. In the Philippines, though, the leadership prefers to pretend that the problem doesn't even exist. Which means that the NGOs could be all that's out there for quite some time.

Ted Lerner is the author of the book Hey, Joe—A Slice of the City, an American in Manila, as well as an upcoming book of Asian travel stories, The Traveler and the Gate Checkers. He can be reached at