This One’s For 12-Year-Old Me: A Gen Z Woman’s Insights on the Importance of Comprehensive Sex Education For All
Amber Garma shares the confusion and misinformation she encountered as a young girl growing up in a society that was not ready to have an honest conversation about sex and reproduction.
I was in the seventh grade when I first learned what a condom was. By this time, I was an incredibly well-read 12-year-old — forging my own life of independence at a specialized art boarding school, doing my own laundry, learning French, and writing critical analyses of classic English poems. But my roommate had to demonstrate the functional use of a condom by sliding a pillowcase down a round pillow. She was lucky — she had grown up with a mother particularly passionate about sex education, and a lot of mischievous guy friends. But if you were a young Filipino girl during the 2010s, chances are the idea of sex was about as comprehensible to you as advanced trigonometry or quantum physics. For myself and many of my peers, sex and reproduction were described in coded language — the birds and the bees, the stork and the carriage, and in the bizarre case of my other roommate, the floppy disk and the hard drive!
In the seventh grade, I learned what a condom was, and the next few years of high school were filled with messy, confusing, and often cringe-y adventures in sexual attraction, young love, and growing into womanhood. But all the while, I navigated these misadventures with none other than fellow incredible women. All of our burning questions were answered through obsessive phases with Korean boybands, hushed dorm room discussions about who was sexually active and who wasn’t, earthshaking pregnancy scares, and support circle breakdowns about dumb boys and their dumb thoughts. We leaned on each other for advice and support but were aware that our realities had much deeper roots and complexities. The influence of religion, gender norms, the value that Filipinos place on close family and community ties, and the prevalence of the patriarchy, all contributed to Gen Z women like me only making sense of my experiences much later in life.
Today, I still have amazing friends, all raised in the same confusion, who I speak with frequently about the experience of being a 20-something woman in the Philippines. If before, our conversations were quiet and strictly after-curfew, as though talking about things we weren’t allowed to, now they are loud and spirited — often taking place at crowded restaurants where everyone can hear us. It is clear that the world has changed significantly since five or so years ago, and that the fog that has blanketed the world of sexual and reproductive health for so long is slowly lifting.
The concerns we have as women now have also evolved, but are equally dumbfounding — whether having children is even an option in this economy, whether modern dating is empowering or just incredibly depressing, whether our parents would ever understand why we would rather live with our partners before marrying them. Now, we also talk about our bodies — the dreams we have for them, and the choices we want to make.
The possibilities are endless in our own minds, but the realities on the ground still hold these dreams captive. Gaining access later on in life to the reproductive health knowledge we needed was still highly contingent on our own privileges — education, access to the internet, and stumbling into spaces where we were free to ask and understand. But sex education in the Philippines as a whole still remains highly traditional and heavily influenced by religious beliefs, even in secular schools. As a nation that places immense value on close family and community ties, the question of “What will people say?” always prefaces young women’s decisions over their own lives. Even more so, the digital divide prevalent in the country deprives many people of access to correct information on sexual and reproductive health, especially with sex education in schools not filling this gap.
The Philippines currently possesses the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Southeast Asia — and the lack of access to accurate information about sexual relations is the biggest factor. Not being aware of crucial information in my early teens got me into a lot of teenage drama and toxic high school romances, but for others who remain deprived of access to information and resources today, the repercussions are much worse.
More comprehensive and accessible SRH education would not only enable women to protect themselves but rather also address the root of the problem — the patriarchy. In the Philippines, young boys are still born into systems that favor them, in turn raising grown men with little understanding of basic consent and respect for women’s bodies — men who are comfortable in their abilities to escape accountability.
With the current realities of sexual and reproductive health in the Philippines, various sectors must come together to fill the gaps in young people’s knowledge and access. The push for more comprehensive sex education in schools, particularly during elementary and junior high school, must be cemented in legislation, and its actual implementation in schools must be monitored by women’s rights and SRH groups for checks and balances.
Civil society organizations may bridge the knowledge gap by providing free, accessible, and digestible information to young people who need it most, through both digital and traditional information campaigns. The private sector can also make a significant contribution by investing in innovations that improve access to information and resources on SRH and family planning. One such program is the USAID ReachHealth Innovation Accelerator, a 7-month impact innovation program spearheaded by Villgro Philippines in partnership with USAID, RTI International, and the Duke Global Health Innovation Centre. The ReachHealth Accelerator supports local innovators in creating solutions for family planning and teenage pregnancy challenges. Just last year, the ReachHealth accelerator worked with In 2022, the ReachHealth Accelerator worked with four enterprises in the fields of health and education: CP Health Innovations Inc. (CareGo EMR), Edukasyon.ph, FriendlyCare Clinic, and Yaka.ph, all of whom created solutions for issues in teenage pregnancy and family planning.
For a Gen Z woman like me, the journey towards even a basic understanding of my own body, of my future as a woman, and of what factors and realities surround the decisions I make, was long, laborious, and interspersed with moments of regret and confusion. But this does not have to be the case for present and future generations of young women. One time, in the middle of a conversation about not wanting to have children, my friend and I came across a Tiktok video of a young mother who was teaching her daughter a ‘boundary song’ — a short rhyming jingle that taught the daughter what to say if someone was touching her body or making gestures towards it. It was such a simple step towards giving a young woman the information she needed, but I couldn’t help but think about how much that could have helped me as a child, and how much of an impact it could make even on a larger scale.
If the pursuit of more accessible and more comprehensive sex education was seen as a total community effort, young people of all genders would not only be able to protect themselves and make informed decisions. They would also be contributing to building safer and more empowered futures, grounded on mutual and immense respect for all. This is the kind of world I wish my 12-year-old self were alive in — the same world that as an adult woman, I will continue to help create.
About the author
Amber Garma is a 21-year-old Communications intern at Villgro Philippines. She is currently in her fourth year at the Ateneo de Manila University, where she majors in Development Studies and specializes in Urban and Regional Development.
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