A new law effective from the end of March, will guarantee access to birth control and sex education classes to millions in the Philippines. But, challenges for supporters of the law still remain.
For women's health advocates like doctor Junice Melgar, this is the moment they've long been waiting for. On March 31, the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act will come into effect. From then on, Filipino pharmacies and hospitals will be required to provide contraceptives free, paid for by the Philippines' government.
"Making contraceptives accessible to women is life changing," says Melgar, who directs the advocacy group Likhann. "This country has never had any serious sexuality or reproductive health education."
Until now, private clinics, such as ones run by Likhaan, have been the only places where Filipino women and men can go to receive free condoms and other forms of birth control. But with the enacting of the new reforms into law, that situation is about to change.
Currently, the United Nations Population Fund, which supplies Melgar's clinics with contraceptives, reports that seven out of ten births in the Philippines are by women 19 years of age or younger.
Advocates expect that birth control measures will be made available for most of the nation's poor at local health centers for free. That's important because, according to government statistics, about a quarter of the Philippines' 96 million citizens live in poverty.
The law will also have across the board effects, such as requiring teenagers to take sex education classes in public schools, as well as improving conditions for pregnant women in hospitals.
Maternal deaths still high
During her three-decades of advocacy, Melgar says she has seen the lives of many young women ruined by unplanned pregnancies. According to the Philippines National Statistics Organization, 36-percent of pregnancies in the country are unplanned.
Melgar says many poor Filipino women cannot afford proper prenatal care and often the woman must halt her education and work in order to care for her baby. This is something that Melgar believes can be prevented.
"The quality of their lives is forever stunted because of that lack of a basic right that's available in many countries," says the 55-year old doctor. "That's the problem that will be solved by the reproductive health law."
Despite efforts by both public and private healthcare providers, the Philippines faces a worsening atmosphere for expectant mothers. According to 2012 government figures, 220 out of 100,000 Filipino women died during their pregnancy, a considerable increase from two years earlier. Health workers attribute that statistic in part to multiple births by one woman, within short periods of time.
At one of Likhaan's clinics in the Tonsuya slum of northern Manila, 19-year old Jessa, tells the story of her mother, who died last year during childbirth.
"It was the 11th time she was pregnant," Jessa says, while wiping back tears. "She went into labor at home, but something went wrong. My father took her to the hospital, but it was too late. The baby died too."
Jessa says she first came to the clinic for prenatal care because she was afraid that she too might die during her own pregnancy. She thinks that birth control could have saved her mother's life.
When the new law takes effect on March 31st, it will be the culmination of a nearly 16-year long battle, between health advocates and the Catholic Church and their respective sympathizers in the Philippines parliament. The Archdiocese of Manila has been an outspoken critic of the legislation, claiming that it will encourage promiscuity and lead to more out of wedlock pregnancies.
For many of the church's supporters, the fight for moral control of the Philippines isn't over yet. Some Catholic-affiliated groups have even gone as far as to petition the nation's Supreme Court to repeal the law.
Melgar isn't bothered by the continued opposition. She's confident that now that family planning is a legally protected right, it's here to stay.
"There are elements here that will forever ideologically and politically oppose reproductive rights," she says.
For now, Melgar says Likhaan and her clinics will work to educate young women about their rights and also tackle other pressing gender issues, like domestic violence.