Most health professionals consider unprotected sex “risky behavior”. Unprotected teen-age sex among unmarried college students in the less sophisticated and less progressive areas of the Philippines, such as Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, is risky in the extreme. This was one of the conclusions reached by health researcher Margeaux Berroth (Brown University) in her report “Unprotected”, after a two-month intensive assessment of the health needs of the students of Palawan State University, Puerto Princesa.
Ms. Berroth started her research by meeting with classes of students from the education, nursing, business and engineering schools. She explained the nature of her research and that she was there not to teach, but to learn about their health needs. Ms. Berroth ended each of these class sessions by asking all the students present to write an unsigned sentence about whatever health issue was important to them. Answers ranged from hypertension to dizzy spells, to inability to afford any medical services, to concerns for friends engaging in unprotected sex and having abortions.
[slickr-flickr tag=”unprotected” photos_per_row=”6″ align=”left” items=”6″ thumbnail_scale=”110″ direction=”descending” align=”center”]
Photos of PSU Couples and the Health Data Gathering Sessions
From these sessions, Ms. Berroth asked for volunteers to join smaller focus group discussions, which were held off campus and outside of school hours. She found students quite candid in such informal settings. She spoke with 210 students in 15 different groups. At the end of this process, she checked the validity of some of her findings by conducting interviews with doctors and nurses at the Ospital ng Palawan, and studying research materials produced by the PSU’s Department of Guidance and Psychology.
Students are very young, mostly sixteen, when they first arrive in the University. They are often from the furthest reaches of Palawan. They therefore reside in privately run boarding houses off campus. They struggle with feelings of academic inadequacy and loneliness. In addition to this, they also have to prepare their own food, manage their finances and wash their clothes. Money is limited and depends, usually by the week or month, on parents’ ability to send cash. There is very little supervision in boarding houses, so students are exposed to alcohol, cigarettes and sex. Even if students arrive with determination to remain ‘unattached’, relationships form, and by their second year many students are involved in sexual relationships.
Students know it is possible to avoid pregnancy, but they have many misconceptions about how contraceptives work, such as, “pills accumulate in your stomach and take up all the space, so you can’t get pregnant”. Both boys and girls are embarrassed to go into a drug store to buy condoms or pills or injectables where store personnel are likely to scold them for buying such things, by telling them they would be expelled from the church and their families would be so ashamed.
So couples may or may not practice withdrawal or a version of the rhythm method. Needless to say, a good number of girls get pregnant. In the best-case scenarios, the couple remains together, have the baby, and get on with their lives. The girl usually drops out of school, but she may return years later.
In many cases the boy abandons her. Some girls tell their families and are chastised and abused by them. Many only seek medical help until right before the baby is born when suddenly reality sets in. Some girls find a way to get an abortion.* Some then end up bleeding nearly to death in a hospital and being neglected and abused by nursing staff that tell them that they are ‘bad’.
Risky behavior. Berroth challenges the Palawan State University to provide students, with help from organizations more specialized in this field, the guidance and education they so sorely need. She recommends a full-curricular program for first year students. Roots of Health is willing to work with school personnel and students in this effort – to make some real changes in the health consciousness and behavior of our university students.
Read the Unprotected Report
* Despite the fact that this is illegal in the Philippines, it is estimated that there are at least 400,000 abortions a year (Center for Reproductive Rights Report, Forsaken Lives)