With the rising cases of teen pregnancy, how can prevention be pushed in a country that still puts stigma on safe sex talk?

Laguna youth leader Samuel Madriaga aims to break that stigma by providing a safe space where young girls and adolescents in the LGBTQIA+ community can openly talk about adolescent sexual and reproductive health (ASRH).

SafeTalks is a mobile app that is currently in its development stage. It will offer its users three core services. First is a real-time question and answer service hotline with trained peer educators who use non-judgmental and accurate responses. 

Second is a referral system that connects users to partner clinics and health professionals for counseling services on family planning, contraceptive use, and teenage pregnancy. 

The third feature is a built-in user pre-test and post-test that can be used for health research. The app is envisioned as a community-designed app.

“Designing a health intervention app that is built on the lived experiences of the youth is critical in breaking stigma. We want to facilitate their desired health-seeking behaviors to prevent the further increase of teenage pregnancy cases in the community,” the 22-year-old student from UP Manila said. 

Sam is at the helm of the Alliance of Public Health Advocates (ALPHA), the first youth-led health organization in San Pablo City. He is also one of the 30 Leadership and Democracy (LEAD) Fellows of the Youth Leadership for Democracy (YouthLed) 2021 project of The Asia Foundation in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (on USAID).

Young people reaching their full potential and achieving their dreams with good health and well-being is the overarching mantra of Samuel’s advocacy. 

But for SafeTalks, Samuel’s motivation goes deeper and more personal than that. 

“One reason why I pursued this project is because teenage pregnancy is personal to me having had some relatives who experienced this because of lack of knowledge and poor attitudes on sexual health which is highly stigmatized,” he said. 

Samuel’s work has also made him much aware of social inequities particularly in the health sector with inaccessible healthcare services and problematic policies that rub salt to the wound of many Filipinos. 

“I see people who get sick and fear to do basic check-ups because of the perceived high expenses. Many aspects of our healthcare also hinder our young people to be more literate and proactive in their health-seeking behaviors. These inspired me to proactively lobby for reforms on health leadership,” he added.  

Through profiling in a pilot barangay in San Pablo, where Samuel lives, he and his team of youth volunteers conducted an expert-validated survey to determine the knowledge, attitude, and practices of the youth on ASRH, particularly on teenage pregnancy. 

A 2020 report from the Social Weather Station (SWS) says that teenage pregnancy, often brought by unprotected sex, is the top concern of many Filipino women. In San Pablo City, a staggering 426 cases of teenage pregnancy have been reported in 2021 alone. 

To further push for this advocacy, Samuel sought for relevant agencies that could help with SafeTalks including the Department of Health (DOH).  

“When we started to speak and collaborate with them, they were surprised with how young people can lobby their own concerns, complete with data to support our cause,” said Samuel who presented results of the rapid area assessment, a data collection method to better understand community issues, which he adopted from the LEAD fellowship.

After that meeting, the DOH expressed support to develop the app. 

During his 2-year LEAD fellowship, Samuel trained under the Future Bridging Leadership Program (FBLP) of the Asian Institute of Management, Executive Education Courses at the Ateneo School of Government, and the Servant Leadership Program of the Ayala Foundation, Incorporated. 

“After this fellowship, I got a stronger personality, approaches, and confidence to propose our project. I learned to build networks with different agencies and stakeholders,” he said. 

Back in his hometown, Samuel and his team collaborated with the City Health Office to identify critical areas to pilot-test the project.

“We want that before we go to the ground, we have trained peer educators as ASRH is a sensitive topic. We need to know better how to appropriately engage with the community,” he said. The partnership with the local government helps them prepare better for the groundwork, he added.

Samuel’s group also aims to institutionalize the app and help craft a Reproductive Health Code in San Pablo City.  

When asked on what he wants to attain from this advocacy, Samuel concludes with great optimism, “I look forward to seeing young Filipinos experience overall wellness and good physical, mental, and reproductive health so they can be more productive and truly help in nation-building.”

The LEAD Fellowship is a two-year fellowship under the Youth Leadership for Democracy (YouthLed), a youth-focused program in the Philippines of The Asia Foundation in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). YouthLed aims to increase and improve youth civic engagement through leadership development, coalition building, and civic education. This is complemented with engagement activities that are relevant to the youth and support their meaningful participation in democratic governance. Among the goals of YouthLed is to develop political leadership skills, knowledge, character, and attitude of young leaders. It also intends to help them build coalitions and networks that will strengthen their capacity to navigate and optimize platforms for democratic governance.