MANILA, Philippines?The Philippine population will continue to grow in the next 50 years even if each couple limits children to two, an official of the Commission on Population (Popcom) said Tuesday.
In the four months since President Benigno Aquino III occupied Malacañang, the country has about 500,000 more mouths to feed?the fastest rate of increase in Southeast Asia?bringing the population to 94 million.
Rosalinda Marcelino, Popcom director for Metro Manila, told members of the House committee on population that the population was ?predominantly young,? with 35 percent below 15 years old, and 15 percent belonging to the 15-24 bracket.
?We are talking here of more than 50 percent of [Filipinos] who are young and, in due time, would become parents. And even if each couple would only have two children, our population will still continue to grow in the next 50 years,? she said in a PowerPoint presentation.
With President Aquino?s backing, lawmakers in the House of Representatives are pushing for the approval of a reproductive health bill against strong Church opposition in the hope of curbing population.
The measure promotes artificial means of family planning, such as the use of contraceptives, pills and condoms, which the Church labels as antilife.
Marcelino noted that the population grew from 7.63 million in 1903 to 88.57 million in 2007, and would become 94.6 million by yearend at the current annual 2-percent rate.
?And because of high fertility and declining death rates, our rate of natural increase is high,? she said.
If the estimated abortion cases of 473,400 in 2000 and 560,000 in 2008 were any gauge, Marcelino said 23 percent of the young population had engaged in premarital sex, the Popcom official said.
One in every four (26 percent) women aged 15 to 24, especially those in rural areas with no schools, has started child-bearing, she said.
Citing data from the UN Economic and Social Commission on Asia and the Pacific, UN Development Program and other countries, Marcelino said the Philippines posted the highest population growth rate among Southeast Asian countries at 2.04 percent.
In contrast, the growth rate was 1.9 percent in Cambodia, 1.6 percent in Malaysia, 1 percent in Vietnam and Indonesia, and 0.4 percent in Thailand. Indonesia, however, is by far the most populated in the region with 229.9 million people.
Highest fertility rate
The Philippines also recorded the highest fertility rate (number of children that would be born to a woman) of 3.3, compared with Cambodia?s 3, Malaysia?s 2.5, Indonesia?s and Vietnam?s 2.1, and Thailand?s 1.5, according to Marcelino.
No thanks to the big population, the country has the highest unemployment rate of 8 percent, followed by Indonesia?s 7.9 percent, Vietnam?s 4.6 percent, Malaysia?s 3.7 percent, Cambodia?s 3.5 percent and Thailand?s 1.5 percent.
Amid the patter of many tiny new feet, calls from pro-birth control campaigners are growing louder as they urge a change in government approach to contraception.
Tight controls have for years hampered efforts by health agencies to distribute artificial contraceptives in the Catholic country.
The reproductive health bill, introduced in July, is the fifth attempt by family planning advocates since 1998 to change the country?s legal framework on the issue.
They hope it will succeed this time amid a new political energy following elections in May that saw Mr. Aquino, a contraception advocate, rise to power.
?I think (the bill) has a greater chance of being passed. Many co-authors of the bill have been re-elected and some of its more vociferous opponents lost in the election,? said Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman.
Until now, there has simply not been the political leadership needed to guide the contentious bill through a deeply divided Congress, Lagman argued.
The pro-contraception lobby?mostly women?s rights groups and nongovernmental organizations?has garnered a colorful and influential cast of supporters in its latest effort to have it passed.
Filipino activist and blogger Carlos Celdran last month became a high-profile addition when he heckled churchmen in Manila Cathedral over their opposition to contraceptives?and was arrested.
But campaigners? hopes rest mainly with Mr. Aquino who, although a Catholic, has said repeatedly in recent months that the poor should have access to contraceptives.
?Benigno Aquino is very popular and the Catholic Church doesn?t have much influence on him,? said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.
?If the Church has a position not supported by the population it will be hard to maintain, and I think public opinion is supportive of reproductive health,? he said.
Nevertheless, Mr. Aquino has sought to placate the Church, meeting behind closed doors with leading bishops to try to find common ground.
The Church, to which 80 percent of the population belongs and which has long wielded strong political influence, has shown it is in no mood to compromise.
It has pledged its support for protests by hardline lay members against any moves to provide wide-scale access to contraceptives.
?(The bill) is masquerading as a health bill but it is actually a handful of harm,? said Josephine Imbong, a pro-Church lawyer and mother of eight, voicing the feelings of many against the proposed legislation.
?It suppresses fertility, which is not a disease, and it devalues spousal rights,? she said.
Many pro-contraception advocates say popular opinion is on their side, pointing to a 2008 nationwide survey that showed 63 percent of respondents in favor of the government subsidizing contraception.
They also point to the dire health consequences of restricting access to contraceptives among the poor in a country where a third of the population lives on less than one dollar a day, according to the United Nations.
By comparison with many of its regional neighbors, the rate of HIV infection in the Philippines is low.
Nevertheless, the deadly virus is spreading, with the latest World Health Organization data showing infections more than doubled from about 4,000 to 8,300 between 2003 and 2007?although these figures are believed to be underreported.
Although abortions are illegal, dangerous ?back street? operations are common.
About 1,000 women die annually in the Philippines through abortion-related complications, according to the Guttmacher Institute health organization. With a report from Agence France-Presse