Last week, we received an invitation from Philippine Navy Lieutenant Senior Grade Karen Ann A. Abulon, Assistant Chief of Staff for N7, Naval Forces North West, Philippine Navy to join them on a two-day medical mission to Balabac, in Southern Palawan. The mission was going to focus on eye and dental interventions, but Lt. Abulon knew that Balabac had many very young mothers, and large families. She thought they would appreciate reproductive healthcare so she invited Roots of Health to join the team. Four of our staff members, Jeri Abenoja, Meryl Arzaga, Joie Cortina Go and Melinda Bunag were up for an adventure so volunteered to go.
The trip was grueling. They met at the Navy at 1 am and traveled by land for six hours, then by boat for another six hours. When they were finally back on land, they thought they had arrived, but then had to hike for nearly two hours. They finally reached their destination, Sitio Melville, the most southern point on Balabac Island. The area has no electricity and although there is a spring, the water is contaminated and many of the children suffer from worms.
Once they arrived, the medical mission began. Hundreds of people had already gathered – people who had travelled up to 4 or 5 hours to be able to access medical care. Many people had come because they had specific eye or dental issues. But many others looked visibly ill. Some children had signs of leprosy. Others showed signs of malnutrition. Everyone was desperate for medical care.
It was easy to spot mothers in the crowd. They were the women and girls with at least two or three children with them. Once we had taught interested women about their birth spacing options, they were most interested in the contraceptive implants. These implants are inserted into a woman’s forearm with the aid of local anesthesia, and then the woman is protected from pregnancy for three years. The team’s very first client who decided that she wanted an implant was only 30 years old yet had 11 children. Another girl, only 17, came carrying her four-month-old while her three-year-old walked behind her. She wanted an implant, but when she took the prerequisite pregnancy test, it came out positive. She is, for the fourth time in her young life, pregnant.
Residents in the Melville area of Balabac are primarily Molbog, an indigenous tribe of Muslim Palawenos. They speak the Molbog language, and do not generally leave the area. Because there are no high schools accessible to the area, most residents have only an elementary school education, if that.
Because of cultural norms, for many girls in Balabac, their first period comes only months before their first pregnancy. Girls are “married” off at young ages in this community, sometimes to boys their own ages, but sometimes to men up to 30 or 40 years older. Local Barangay Health Centers do not have the personnel and resources needed to reach more rural areas. As a result of the lack of education, services and resources, pregnancies are unhealthily frequent. There are no obstetricians and only a few midwives in the area, so most women and girls, even those with high risk pregnancies, give birth at home, unattended by a skilled birth attendant.
When our team left for Balabac, they didn’t know if anyone would want the implants that they were bringing with them. But by the second day of the mission they had inserted all the implants and had to turn women away because they had run out of stocks.
This is why reproductive healthcare needs to be accessible: the demand for services outweighs the supply. Women in places like Balabac have no choice but to have child after child, even when they don’t want and cannot support more. Women should be able to choose if or when to get pregnant and have children.
Girls should not become mothers when they are still children themselves.
The team arrived back in Rio Tuba, wet and exhausted after a rough sea journey. Another long van ride and they were finally home. While the journey and conditions were taxing, the team was happy to have been able to improve the lives of women and girls who so desperately need the help.
I hope our team can return to Balabac in early 2016 so we can continue empowering women and providing young people with education and information that could change their lives!
*Buntis means pregnant in Filipino