Vagina, clitoris, penis, testicles. Say these words out loud without giggling. Say them without whispering.
I was at a family lunch one Sunday afternoon when I overheard my sister talking to my 10-year-old nephew about circumcision. I kept hearing the word “ding-a-ling” and realized they were talking about the penis. As Filipinos, we have several household labels for our reproductive organs. “Flower” refers to the vagina, and “birdy” or “talong” refer to the penis.
It’s one of many examples of social norms around our bodies and our sexuality. Despite the passage of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act in 2012, people continue to discuss sex and sexuality as if they are state secrets waiting to be discovered. They are considered prohibited or even shameful topics that may unleash disease and promiscuity and ruin the Filipino family.
However, this taboo mindset only increases the risks of teenage pregnancy and sexual violence, lowers health-seeking behavior and prevents us from exercising and enjoying the full range of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) accorded to us as human beings regardless of age, gender and cultural beliefs.
As a development worker doing community field visits, I have often heard adults blame social media for influencing teenagers to “experiment,” resulting in teenage pregnancies. A few even say it’s due to the lack of fear-based discipline toward children. In school, despite the release of policy guidelines on comprehensive sexuality education, implementation remains uneven.
At home, according to a baseline study commissioned by Oxfam under the Sexual Health and Empowerment (SHE) project supported by Global Affairs Canada, parents are not comfortable discussing the subject due to the fear that their children will engage in premarital sex. We therefore cannot blame young people for turning to social media to seek answers when they cannot find safe spaces to talk.
The Oxfam study reveals that the quality of knowledge affects people’s decision-making and attitudes toward their SRHR. Prevailing social norms cause people to be embarrassed when purchasing condoms, and women are afraid to use subdermal implants because of the myth that these cause cancer. If information is limited and even forbidden, adolescents are likely to have less control over their sexuality choices, and would even continue to believe that peeing after sex would not make them pregnant. This issue was validated during the recent national summit on early pregnancy, which had precisely the same theme — the need to empower the youth to make informed choices.
We need to reflect on and rethink our policies and strategies in addressing SRHR issues. For example, under the law, the minimum age of sexual consent is 12 years old—but can we really expect 12-year-olds to fully understand the concept of sex or consent?
Ironically, while 12-year-olds are presumed to be able to give sexual consent, they are prohibited from accessing contraceptives without their parents’ approval.
Girls as young as 11 and 12 have experienced sexual violence, but do not report it because of fear and embarrassment. The National Demographic and Health Survey shows that 9 percent of girls in the Philippines ages 15-19 have already begun child-bearing. Undersecretary Juan Antonio Perez III of the Commission on Population and Development has rightly classified the alarming high rate of teenage pregnancy as a national and social emergency.
We need to see women, girls, men and boys as human beings capable of making the right choices. Instead of keeping information from them and making them feel ashamed for asking questions, we should provide gender-sensitive, diverse, inclusive, age-appropriate and positive knowledge to empower them to make decisions over their own bodies free from fear, violence and coercion.
We need to remove the veil of stigma and shame, and instead view our bodies and our sexuality as a site of empowerment where consent is valued, pleasure is acceptable, and sexual health and satisfaction are achieved. This is what it takes to transform our bodies from a site of shame to a site of power.
Rina Fulo is the project officer for sexual and reproductive health and rights of Oxfam in the Philippines. This piece was originally published on Sept. 12, 2019 in Inquirer.net.