Reproductive Health and Post-Disaster Baby Booms

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Written by: Ladylyn Lim Mangada

When Super Typhoon Haiyan (local name Yolanda) devastated Eastern Visayas in November 2013, pictures of death, displacement and massive damage to infrastructure and housing shocked the world.  However, behind the grief and anger over the disorganized distribution of emergency assistance was a celebration of life, particularly new lives.  The areas struck by Haiyan experienced a baby boom. The catastrophic typhoon did not delay or forego the reproductive motivations of the survivors. Haiyan took away lives but it also brought new lives.

Unofficial figures from five local catholic churches in the downtown area of Tacloban, Palo and Tanauan, in the province of Leyte as well as numbers from the biggest hospital in the region show that baptized children and deliveries rose after Haiyan.  Whilst this trend may be attributed to the Philippine pro-child Christian mindset it is also symptomatic of the inability of institutions to provide reproductive health care in times of disaster. The majority of Filipinos (approximately 83 percent) consider themselves to be Roman Catholics. The dominance of Roman Catholicism in the Philippine is the result of 333 years of Spanish colonial rule in the archipelago. The Roman Catholic Church hierarchy in the Philippines, through the Catholic Bishops Conference, strongly opposes the government’s population management measures. It openly rejects government programs on family planning, the teaching of sex education in schools and the distribution of contraceptives. Moreover, the enacted Reproductive Health Law does not limit the number of children a family can have and enables families to plan the size they want.

Table 1: Unofficial number of Baptisms in Tacloban City, Palo and Tanauan, Leyte

2013 2014 2015
5 Local catholic churches 2073 2078 2335

Table 2 Unofficial number of deliveries in the biggest public hospital

2013 2014 2015
Regional public hospital 4392 5157 5426

Wider evidence indicates that fertility rates increase following natural disasters. This phenomenon has been observed after the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the 1999 Turkish earthquake, the 2001 Indian earthquake, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and in South Carolina in the United States following Hurricane Hugo. Several public health studies also found that women faced increased difficulty obtaining contraception after the Indian Ocean tsunami and after Hurricanes Ike and Katrina on the United States Gulf Coast.

This was consistent with evidence gathered from settlers in the Tacloban post-Haiyan relocation sites. One female commented that;It was my husband who initiated sex. I believe it was his way of coping with stress and trying to forget even if only for a while, that we were left with nothing’. A male informant stated that he really felt the need for sex as a way of coping with stress due to his workload. In his words; Yes, we engaged in sex in order to relieve anxiety and exhaustion and to forget about the problems at work and the dire condition that we are in now’. Another informant noted that:

 I took oral contractive (pills) after Yolanda.  But my husband wanted another child, preferably a boy, so I stopped taking pills for a while. I gave birth to a baby boy. Pills were not available immediately after Yolanda. It took sometime, around six months, after the typhoon. We had to buy it and we even had to go to as far as Catbalogan Samar since they were not yet available in Tacloban. There was no supply in the barangay.

Whilst another informant stated; ‘I wasn’t able to take pills after Yolanda because supplies were washed out. I got pregnant as a result. But now I am back on the contraceptive pill, which I have to buy from the drugstore’.
While sex as a coping mechanism and the difficulty of obtaining contraceptives during the post-disaster recovery phase appears to be obvious. This issue should be comprehensively addressed in policy circles. Thus far scant research or humanitarian attention has focused on these concerns. Such an oversight combined with the desire to reproduce and create life after a significant disaster are contributing factors to the baby boom that was experienced in Haiyan affected areas.

Current demographic statistics indicate that the Philippines has one of the fastest population growth rates in the world.  It has a population of nearly 103 million.  Under normal conditions, rapid population growth already threatens social and economic growth. This situation intensifies in an environment of disaster. The delivery of services, such as health and education, cannot keep pace with the growth of the population. Basic social services such as health care continue to elude the poor and the vulnerable; particularly women, children, people with disabilities and the elderly. After Super Typhoon Haiyan the Philippines lacked the capacity to shelter its constituents from the ravages of natural hazards. It lacked capacity to handle sudden and unexpected crisis.

If natural calamities trigger an increase in births then this has the potential to exacerbate existing demands for economic opportunities that promote sustainable livelihood and basic social services to ensure life sustenance and protection. Post disaster baby booms are serious challenges to a country that is visited by an average of 20 typhoons a year. Effective state and non-state actor interventions must start with the recognition that women have specific vulnerabilities and have special needs. Institutions and relief agencies should develop systematic policies that integrate reproductive health care into both emergency response and early rehabilitation interventions after disasters.

Ladylyn Lim Mangada is a professor in political science at the University of the Philippines, Visayas, Tacloban. She is a researcher with the ESRC/DFID funded project ‘Poverty Alleviation in the Wake of Typhoon Yolanda’. You can follow this project on Facebook @ Project_Yolanda and Twitter @Project_Yolanda. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.



Categories: Philippines, Project Yolanda

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