Unitown and teen pregnancy

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All three of them had something in common. Pretty, smiling faces, exuberant, and in all cases, were from poor families. I knew all three of them personally. And I often interacted with them. Let’s give them fictitious names to protect their identity.

Weena was enrolled in my PE 1 class in the first semester of 2006. Fair-skinned with blondish hair and ready smile, she was easily recognizable on campus. Whenever I saw her between classes, I would ask her how her grades were, and smilingly, she would answer that they were good. She was taking up nursing, her schooling financed by a sister working abroad. In her junior year, she fell in love, and I often saw her and her boyfriend at Sunday mass, holding hands even as they bowed their heads in solemn prayer. I was thrilled at the sight of two young people deeply in love.

One day, I learned that Weena dropped out from school. Nobody knew where she was. Later on, I learned that she got pregnant. When she came back to school, what I saw was an entirely different girl. The healthy body looked frail, the smiling face looked drawn with premature wrinkles covering her forehead, and when I tried to talk to her, she was evasive and didn’t seem eager to talk to me. One day, I asked her if her baby was a boy or a girl and she quickly answered “Boy”, and hurried away unable to hear me say: “Good, when he’s grown up, you have somebody to protect you.”

Maryjane was taking a business management course, was a student assistant, and a member of the Junior Red Cross. She was the most responsible student I ever had assigned to help me manage the marathon clinic and sports events I organized. She was always the first to arrive at the Rizal Blvd. where I first held the Dumaguete marathon races; and assembly time was at 5 a.m. Arriving very early ahead of everybody, she would sit on one of the benches, bend over and rest her head on the medicine box she was carrying, and take a nap while waiting for the start of the race. When assigned to handle first aid in sporting events that would start at 7 a.m. and end as late as 9 p.m., she would be there, leaving only her post for short breaks. I think, it was her loyalty to her assignment that carried the Junior Red Cross to back-to-back awards as the most outstanding student organization on campus. In her senior year, Maryjane got pregnant and dropped out of school completely.
Charisse had a bright future ahead of her taking up agribusiness. I encouraged her to get good grades, and who knows, I would tell her, “Someday, you might be manager of the FU farm in Amlan.” Towards the end of her senior year, she got pregnant by her boyfriend who was also an SA. She, too, had to drop out of school.

Another thing that was common among them was that they were required to leave school because of an institutional policy regarding unmarried girls getting pregnant. An unwritten rule of many academic institutions like Foundation University is that any unmarried girl who gets pregnant must file a leave of absence and leave school. No girl who fell into the predicament of pregnancy ever attempted to contest this unwritten code of conduct.

Let’s first consider the following statistics before we go any further: In the Philippines, a study conducted by the UP Population Institute and the Demographic Research Foundation in 2002 showed that 26 percent of Filipino youth nationwide, ages 15 to 25, admitted to have had premarital sex, and that 38 percent are in a living-in arrangement.

The 1998 National Demographic & Health Survey indicated that 3.6 million of Filipino teenagers (that’s 5.2 percent of our population) got pregnant. In 92 percent of these teens, the pregnancy was unplanned, and 78 percent did not use contraceptives the first time they had sexual intercourse. Many of them were ignorant of the fact that a single act of intercourse could get a girl pregnant.

These stats show that the stories of Weena, Maryjane, and Charisse are not isolated cases of teen-aged girls getting pregnant, who experience either an interrupted period of studies, or dropped out of school completely.

While some manage to come back to school, get their degrees, and rebuild their lives, others suffer the consequences of unfinished schooling, or the health risks of early pregnancy such as malnutrition, inadequate pre-natal care, abortion, fetal death, or cervical cancer.

Although abortion is illegal in the Philippines, it is shocking to note a higher abortion rate of 25/1000 women here compared to the USA where abortion is legal at 23/1000 women. The rate could even be higher if data on back door abortions resorted to with hilots are available.

Not all co-eds who get pregnant are able to rebuild their lives by going back to school and continue with their studies. In an article titled Unwed, pregnant–and kicked out written by Rachel C. Balawid, she attributes the reason to why many teen-aged girls fail to rebuild their lives after getting pregnant: the “long-time policy of most Catholic schools…which consists of granting a leave of absence, or outright expulsion”.

The implementing rules and regulations of R.A. 9710, otherwise known as the Magna Carta of Women, forbids all forms of discrimination against women, including a school’s refusal to grant enrollment or work to unmarried pregnant students and teachers.
Not all agree, however, as some sectors say the provision is not just unconstitutional, but may even be sending the wrong signals to the youth.

Section 13 of the MCW particularly provoked the most instances of debate among authors of the law and the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines: “Expulsion and non-readmission of women faculty due to pregnancy outside of marriage shall be outlawed. No primary or secondary school shall turn out or refuse admission to female student solely on the account of her having contracted pregnancy outside of marriage during her term in school.”

A congressman opposed to the law posited that this provision is “an impermissible intrusion into the practice of religion and the academic freedom of an institution.

Under state and civil laws, pre-marital sex and getting pregnant out of wedlock are not illegal and immoral. This is possible if a single woman who gets pregnant does not run counter to the mission, vision, or objective of a particular educational institution.
It could be applicable in state colleges, universities and other private institutions that do not in any way adhere to a particular religion that abhors pregnancy out of wedlock.

But if they are going to insist on a particular theology, religion precept for that matter which insists on high standards of morality and decency, that is an exercise of religion. Therefore, it contradicts the freedom of religion of a constitution in a community.

A Catholic school’s role is to teach the Catholic faith and to inculcate in its students Catholic morals. Extramarital sex is wrong according to its moral theology. It is, therefore, a practice of the Catholic faith to impose sanctions on those who violate this moral teaching, among them, the denial of the privilege to teach or to study at a Catholic school.

A private educational institution has the freedom to choose whom to teach and who shall be allowed to teach. These people should be those who adhere to religion and standards of morality. So it’s just simple. Don’t enroll in a Catholic school if you do not want to follow their rules,” explained the congressman.

One of the authors of the law, however, pointed out that the issue was not about violating academic freedom of educational institutions but the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. “The right of academic institutions ends when the impingement of the human rights of individuals begin. This was the reason why the law was passed because of instances where society looked down on women because their decisions do not conform with what is believed to be morally right by some sectors.”

The opposing congressman also believes that letting pregnant students or teachers stay in school will create negative effects on other students. “If you allow her to stay, it will create so much confusion, antipathy, and antagonism. The concern is not only her, but the community. This goes for teachers who should be worthy of emulation. If they get pregnant out of wedlock, they will no longer be in compliance of their principal responsibility of being role models to the students.”

Balawid also reported that St. Scholastica College of Manila imposed the leave of absence policy on unmarried pregnant students which allowed them to re-enroll after giving birth and undergoing counseling.

However, in compliance with the Magna Carta, the LOA is now optional. The pregnant girl may continue going to school until two week before her due date, in which case, she will file for a leave of absence.

The SSCM dean of students said: “We are a Catholic school and one of the major values that Jesus taught us is compassion. This dictates that we don’t expel a student who’s suddenly in a quandary because she got pregnant and she’s not married, and is going to give birth to a child who will not have a father…Its all about being humane, compassionate and giving the much-needed second chances.”

The genesis of our University Town was laid down by two of the oldest universities in our country, one founded by Protestant missionaries and another by Catholic nuns. Foundation University, a non-sectarian institution may be characterized as conservative, meaning, it strictly adheres to traditional standards of conduct and moral values.

Which makes me ask the question: “What is our University Town’s attitude towards teen pregnancy?” Do we have a collective and shared mindset regarding this social problem which, because of the provisions of the Marna Carta of Women, challenge our traditional beliefs about young people indulging in premarital sex and suffering the consequences of this behavior?

As an academic community, we pride ourselves as champions of environmental ethics. But where are we positioned in terms of human ethics? To answer this question, there is an urgent need for all of us in academe to break out from the walls of our campuses, parochial turfs, and mindsets, come together and address this issue of youth sexual behavior.

I dread the thought that one day, we shall have adopted the model in other countries where a girl, upon reaching the age of menarche, is advised to take contraceptive pills. I shudder at the thought that one day, our school clinics will be dispensing “morning-after pills” to girls and condoms to boys.

There must be a sensible and intelligent way to confront and solve this urgent problem. Will somebody in University Town take the initiative to lead?

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