The youth made even more vulnerable

Published February 14, 2021, 12:32 AM

by Senator Sonny Angara


Senator Sonny Angara

Earlier this year, one of our Senate seatmates, Senator Win Gatchalian, called attention to disturbing reports of school children selling sexually exploitative material of themselves to pay for distance-learning expenses, such as gadgets and internet connectivity.

The apparent catalyst was a December 30, 2020, report in the website Philippine Online Student Tambayan (POST) on an alleged “Christmas Sale” where students used social media and digital payment platforms to sell bundles of photos and videos for as low as P150.

For years, international groups have monitored the Philippines as an epicenter of online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC). But while local and foreign law enforcement continue to save many children and convict perpetrators, the Department of Justice recorded a nearly threefold increase of cyber tips on OSEC between March and May, 2020. Driving this spike appears to be a confluence of factors emanating from the community quarantines, including the economic desperation of families, the stoppage of face-to-face instruction in schools, and the youth’s extended exposure to the internet.

OSEC is not the only problem involving young people that could be — or already has been — exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, the Commission on Population and Development (Popcom) reported that teenage pregnancies (15 years old and below) have risen by 7  percent between 2018 and 2019 — continuing an alarming trend that has been tracked since 2011. Popcom officials expressed worry that the pandemic may have intensified the problem, as the lockdowns have restricted access to family planning services or sex education and counseling.

To be clear, the Philippines is not the only country facing this huge challenge. A 2020 report by Save the Children International estimated that the pandemic may lead to more than one million more adolescent pregnancies worldwide.  If left unaddressed, the futures of so many girls would be imperiled. Motherhood at such a young age not only comes with many attendant health risks; it also reduces the opportunity for girls to get an education and realize their fullest potential.

In fact, the pandemic itself has caused a sharp drop in enrollment.  As of August last year, the Department of Education (DepEd) registered that close to 4 million students were not able to enroll for the current school year, with more than half of this number coming from private schools.  Such data is alarming not only because these students are already facing delays in  their education.  There is also the real danger of them being forced to drop out altogether, for one reason or another.  This would only lead to ballooning numbers of out-of-school youths (OSYs), which in turn would make it even more difficult for the country to recover.

But the pandemic has also brought challenges even to the youth who are continuing their schooling.  Even though our education officials have extended as much flexibility as they can for schools to continue classes amid the pandemic,  one cannot deny the inherent difficulties in the almost-overnight shift in the way our students are taught.

There are reports of students having hardships with internet connectivity, and with keeping themselves motivated to study without actual social contact with their teachers and classmates.  A forthcoming Fund Life International study of young people in Tacloban, Leyte, even found that 81 percent of the youths interviewed said they find it challenging to find a place to study, while 76 percent responded that it was tough for them to concentrate on learning while at home. More importantly, 86 percent admitted that it was very hard for them to learn without a teacher’s help.

Recent studies have also suggested that mental health issues among the youth have intensified because of the pandemic.  An August, 2020, survey conducted by researchers of the University of the Philippines, the National University of Singapore, and the South East Asia One Health University Network found that respondents in the young age group (12-21.4 years) had significantly high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression—as compared to other age brackets.

These are just some of the ways the pandemic has rendered our young people even more vulnerable than before. We haven’t even discussed the challenges of the expected rise in youth unemployment.

Leaving these issues unattended would be akin to sabotaging all our efforts to jumpstart our economic recovery. This is why we filed Senate Resolution No. 424 urging the appropriate committee to conduct a comprehensive investigation on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our youth. But wherever action can already be taken, we implore all those who can to do so.

Sen. Sonny Angara has been in public service for 16 years.  He has authored and sponsored more than 200 laws. He is currently serving his second term in the Senate.

 E-mail: [email protected]| Facebook, Twitter & Instagram: @sonnyangara