Non-profit organization Roots of Health, or Ugat ng Kalusugan, has stepped up its campaign to improve reproductive, maternal, and sexual health in communities in the city to help young people make sound decisions against negative choices that can impact their lives.
Amina Evangelista-Swanepoel, founder and executive director of Roots of Health (also Ugat ng Kalusugan), said sexuality as a topic still remains “taboo” and unacceptable in the country despite the huge reproductive health problems it is facing, such as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), a type of sexually transmitted infection (STI).
Swanepoel said this during the launching of the Youth Clinic in the city, which aims to serve young clients aged 24 and below with reproductive health services.
Although there is a need to better understand their perspectives concerning their orientations or preferences, gender and sexual orientation are still topics that parents do not freely address with their adolescent children in Filipino families.
Even the community, she added, remains “in denial”, especially the older generation, because it has its own ideas about what should be done and it is “conservative” in theory.
“I think medyo in denial [ang community when it comes to intimacy] lalo na ang older generation kasi mayroon silang ideas kung ano ang dapat gawin. Actually, ang culture natin ay conservative in theory, I think, kasi in practice makikita mo naman. Kung conservative talaga tayo as we say, then dapat walang teenage pregnancy, walang corruption, and anything. Obviously, when we look at the reality, ang sinasabi ng tao ay not same sa ginagawa nila. Dapat pag-usapan siya ng tama,” Swanepoel said.
“Sexuality is a taboo topic; most people do not want to talk about it as it makes them uncomfortable. Adults don’t want to think about the fact that young people are actually active on being intimate. Kailangan mag-start sa school, sa community and, of course, sa bahay,” she added.
Swanepoel said that as young people grow up, they are faced with the challenge of making important decisions about relationships, gender identity, and intimacy behavior.
People do not want to talk about these topics, but in reality, they happen. The decisions young people make can have an impact on their well-being and society as a whole, and families have a special role in preparing them by providing knowledge about safe intimacy activities.
Not to be misconstrued, Swanepoel said Roots of Health does not promote sex. What it fosters is how young people should make sound decisions and choices to protect themselves from potential problems that may destroy their lives.
“We are often accused of promoting sex or encouraging sex. Of course, that is not true. We want young people to understand that sex is a big deal and that it is better to wait until they get older and are in committed relationships,” Swanepoel said.
Openly discussing sex and sexuality is “okay”, she explained, for the community, the school, and the family to help in order to attain a change in teens’ behavior.
She said Roots of Health is helping bridge this gap by spreading awareness to educators, community members, and families.
More so, the young people, who, in this digital age, are seeking guidance on their own, sometimes from misleading sources.
“We also teach young people about the importance of openness and honesty. We help to decrease the number of young people who are pressured into intimacy when they are not yet ready. But we also want to help those who have already begun, “she said.
Swanepoel said that the community should not deny young people the right information or access to protection.
She said that youth will benefit from the help of society to practice safe and protected activities.
“Scolding kids who are having intimacy, shaming them, making them feel bad, denying the information, denying the contraceptives will not stop them from having it; instead, they will have it in secret without protecting themselves,” Swanepoel said.
“We provide knowledge that helps them decide if they are ready for intimacy and, if they are, we provide high quality, confidential and non-judgmental services to help them protect themselves and their future,” she added.
The Youth Clinic, according to Swanepoel, can help in this societal dilemma until such people are willing to openly discuss what is already happening.
Located at the corner of Lacao Street and J. Rizal Avenue, the clinic aims to provide exclusive care for young people to reduce high teen pregnancy rates and respond to other reproductive health issues.
Teen pregnancy and STIs like HIV contribute to poverty because young people are unable to finish their education.
“Unfortunately, the Philippines has had a huge number of teenage pregnancies and HIV for many decades. Not only is the unplanned pregnancy pushing girls to stop going to school. Study shows that teenage mothers are more likely to have premature babies, suffer from chronic poverty, and are unlikely to achieve higher education,” she said.
Swanepoel said the factors why teens continue to face reproductive health problems include lack of knowledge and lack of access to contraceptives.
She said that the clinic basically offers contraceptives and counseling.
“Basically, we offer counseling para sa mga katanungan ay puwede silang pumunta dito. Kahit hindi sila sexually active ay welcome sila and we also give contraceptives sa mga gusto. Walang judgemental dito, ang clinic na ito ay youth-friendly,” she said.
Robelle Cortezano, director of clinical programs, assures the youth who will seek advice that their identities will be protected.
This is because the majority of young people do not want to submit themselves to health facilities because of the stigma.
“Hindi sila naga-avail ng services kasi nahihiya sila, natatakot na mapagalitan sila o baka majudge sila. Karamihan ng young people na pupunta sa mga clinic ay may anak na o buntis na. Pre-natal services at contraceptives ang binibigay. Yon ang ibibigay ni Roots of Health, kailangan youth friendly clinic kaya unang-una dapat secured ang pasyente,” Cortezano said.
Ivann Polizon, an adolescent sexual and reproductive health educator, said that a large number of HIV positive patients not only implies an increase in people seeking help but also that most of the youth are active in being intimate.
He said their interpretation is that society really needs information and knowledge on reproductive health and safe sex.
“‘Yong 419 na cases ay puwedeng ma-interpret as marami ang nagpapa-test, pero puwede rin na more of our youth are sexually active. Mas nakikita natin dito ang importance ng safe sex kaysa naman ma-infect sila,” he said.
The clinic was established with the help of the New Zealand government.