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The issues of population, poverty, reproductive health, and sustainable human development are so closely interconnected that none of them can be considered in isolation.

Almost 20 years ago in 2002, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, in his message to the Fifth Asian and Pacific Population Conference in Bangkok maintained that “… the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, cannot be achieved if population and reproductive health issues are not addressed.  In order to address these issues, we must work to further promote women’s rights and invest in education and health, including reproductive health and family planning.”

Perforce, it is imperative that the crucial concerns of population and sustainable human development are incorporated into policymaking.

Moreover, policymakers also have the responsibility to continuously keep themselves updated on the various issues interlinked with population and development like women’s health; gender equality and equity; hunger and poverty; quality education and healthcare; peace and social justice; and decent employment and equitable economic growth.

By doing their homework, legislators broaden their knowledge and proficiency on these vital issues and this helps them in crafting truly responsible and responsive laws that can empower people and lead to the attainment of genuine human development. This is where congressional staff and secretariat personnel can contribute the most. They can directly influence their principals by keeping them apprised on these issues even as they themselves benefit from the additional expertise in all matters pertaining to population and development will bring.

This is also where the Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD) can harness its enviable potential of having as its members the policymakers themselves – the Representatives and Senators.

Way back in 1994, the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) illustrated in clear, broad strokes the inescapable linkage between the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and sustainable human development.

But not many are aware that a Filipino actually antedated the ICPD and UN Secretary General Kofi Anan in coming to this conclusion on the crucial linkage between population and development.

Long before the ICPD acknowledged the interrelatedness of population, poverty, and progress and recognized that government efforts to eradicate poverty would not succeed if population issues are ignored and reproductive health concerns are not met, there was a Filipino visionary who had been saying the exact same thing more than half a century ago.

Rafael Montinola Salas, the first Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) who held that position for almost 20 years until his untimely death, emphasized that “there are crucial links between population and development and (there is) need to take population factors into account in development plans.”

Rafael Salas, who was known worldwide as “Mr. Population”, to no small measure, inspired the enactment by the Philippine Congress in 2012 of the Reproductive Health Law or Republic Act No. 10354 which is a comprehensive and model statute on sexual and reproductive health and rights. The RH Law is an exposition of Salas’ paradigm on the indivisible nexus between population and sustainable human development.

This pioneering law in a predominantly Catholic nation is health-oriented, human rights-based, and sustainable development-driven. It recognizes the inalienable right of couples, particularly women, to freely determine the number and spacing of their children. It mandates the State to give universal access to family planning information, services and commodities to voluntary acceptors, and for free to marginalized and impoverished sectors.

The principal figures in the RH Law are the mothers and their infants, and the core principle is freedom of informed choice.

I must emphasize, as I did all throughout the 13 long years it took to pass the RH Law, that neither the State nor the Church has the right to compel citizens or the faithful to adopt or reject family planning, including the regular and proper use of contraceptives. The choice belongs to the people.

Once fully and faithfully implemented, the Philippine Reproductive Health Law will herald the country’s full development as resources are primed to maximize social and economic services and infrastructure growth, because they are liberated from the current mounting expenditures on maternal and infant mortality and morbidity, life-threatening pregnancies and abortions, teenage pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases, as well as the increasing budgetary demands of a runaway population.

But the RH Law is only the initial step as population and development encompass more than just reproductive health. Rafael Salas’s call to action to the countries worldwide way back in the early 1980s was clear and definitive: “A population policy is a long-range strategic weapon; its effects are felt not immediately but a generation hence. To be effective, it must be launched now.”

In 2015, all Member States of the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Human Development which is a veritable template for the realization of the common dream of all human beings of lasting peace and genuine prosperity.

The essence of the 2030 Agenda is distilled in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs, which include, among others, no poverty, zero hunger, gender equality, decent work for all, good health and wellbeing, climate action, and responsible consumption and production.

It will be recalled that the SDGs have replaced the Millennium Development Goals or the MDGs, which was a global effort in 2000 to overcome crippling poverty and extreme hunger, reduce maternal and infant mortality, expand the coverage of primary education, prevent deadly diseases, and other primary development priorities in poor and developing nations.

Unlike the MDGs, the SDGs include even First World nations and are envisioned to take full advantage of the momentum generated and gains achieved by the MDGs. It is a blueprint for all nations to help achieve more inclusive progress, genuine human development, and peaceful and thriving communities even as concrete steps are taken to ensure the protection of our planet.

The SDGs are not merely items on a country’s to-do list. They are integral parts of the compass that will guide all nations and their leaders in navigating the often difficult and challenging roads leading to worldwide peace and equitable progress.

As the UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs succinctly puts it, the SDGs “recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.”

Legislators must count themselves fortunate for they are in a singular and unique position to play an active hand in the realization of the SDGs by incorporating population and development issues into our laws – statutes that promote and adopt people-centered national policies and programs that ensure not only that no one is left behind, but everyone rides the powerful wave of progress.

This is an opportunity we must not waste and a responsibility we must wholeheartedly take on. The prospect of playing an active role in the Philippines’ achievement of the SDGs by mainstreaming population and sustainable human development in policymaking is a role we must not pass up nor delay.

As the elected representatives of the people, parliamentarians have a vital part in inspiring and realizing a people-centered development agenda that utilizes a rights-based approach to development that must not only mirror the varied and wide-raging demands of their constituents but also, and perhaps even more importantly, fully respond to the often-overlooked needs and aspirations of the poor and marginalized like women, workers, indigenous groups, and the differently-abled, among others.

The 17 SDGs are all interlinked and mutually reinforcing. The fulfillment and realization of one makes it easier to achieve the others.

For example, if the Congress passes into law the pending bills prohibiting child marriage and preventing adolescent pregnancy, this will not only strengthen the existing RH Law and liberate young girls from early childbearing, it will also help ensure that they finish their education, which in turn will be indispensable for them in finding remunerative work, be financially self-sufficient, contribute to the economy, and ultimately, avoid poverty – which is SDG 1.  

In the case of SDG 5, policymakers can contribute to the achievement of gender equality not only by developing relevant legislation but also by promoting women’s political leadership both within the Congress and local legislative bodies and by encouraging gender mainstreaming or the policy of assessing the various effects on people of different genders of any planned policy action.

Another example of how interlinked the SDGs are is the fact that climate change differentially affects women and girls. This means that women and girls experience climate change more adversely than men and boys. Across the world in developing nations like the Philippines, women and girls are often responsible for growing backyard gardens, foraging for food, collecting water, and gathering fuel for cooking. Because of climate change, these tasks are becoming more difficult and increasingly more dangerous as they go farther away from home to perform these tasks.

Climate change is now also creating a new generation of child brides. The climate crisis exerts overwhelming economic pressure on families, results to loss of crops, land, livelihoods, and homes and this affects a family’s security and stability thereby forcing parents to marry off very young daughters for the corresponding bride price in many countries with this nuptial custom or reducing the number of family members to feed. In the Philippines, it is not uncommon for young girls from the provinces to venture out into cities in search for jobs as domestic helpers or factory workers after a particularly devastating typhoon.

It is therefore essential that steps are taken to promote gender sensitive climate legislation and not simplistic one-size-fits-all statutes on climate change.

The 2030 Agenda promises to ensure that “no one will be left behind” and endeavors “to reach the furthest behind first”.

But what does this mean for policymakers?

When the Philippines signed the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Human Development, it also effectively mandated and empowered the Congress to take unequivocal action and craft laws that significantly reduce inequalities and inequities, end extreme poverty, generate employment, protect and promote the overall health and wellbeing of people, squarely confront discrimination, and accelerate progress specifically for those furthest behind.

We must remember that people get left behind when they are bereft of choices and are deprived of the opportunity to actively participate in and reap the benefits of development. These are people who live in extreme poverty, lack basic education, are unemployed, and discriminated against for various reasons. In other words, Filipinos who endure disadvantages, deprivations, disease, and disabilities that severely constrict their choices and narrow their opportunities relative to others in society. These are the dispossessed who should be at the heart of all our efforts to enact progressive and pro-people legislation.

Clearly, as legislators, we have our work cut out for us. But we have staunch partners and enduring allies in organizations like the Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development and government agencies like the Commission on Population and Development (POPCOM) to help us integrate into national policies and development plans the issues of population and sustainable human development.

This commentary is addressed not only to the 18th Congress whose term is about to expire. It is also a centerpiece agenda for the 19th Congress after the 2022 elections.


(Speech delivered by REP. EDCEL C. LAGMAN during the Webinar Series: IDENTIFYING POPULATION AND POLICY AGENDA AND ADVOCACY INITIATIVES sponsored by the Commission on Population and Development (POPCOM) and the Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD) on 08 September 2021)