Roots of Health

Improving Reproductive Health and Awareness in the Philippines

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Words || Domenica Villahermosa

The organisation Roots of Health was a new addition to the PACE International program at the end of 2017. So, when I read about the work that they did with women and youth throughout Palawan, I knew that it was the only organisation that I wanted to intern for. 

I wasn’t nervous at first about going into my host organisation Roots of Health, but it dawned on me that I was going to be working in a field that I had no experience in.  All of a sudden, I felt like 10 years in retail and 2 years of anthropology studies didn’t prepare me to work for an NGO. Where would a university writer fit into the organisation? What could I give to them? I didn’t know what to expect. I hated not knowing.

When I finally arrived at the office in the middle of January 2019, it wasn’t what I expected. The office didn’t look like the offices in Australia. They were working on wooden tables and sitting on plastic white chairs. If you looked on your right, you had a view of the mountains, the sun shining, and on the other side, the main highway. The workplace environment was bright and happy. It didn’t feel intimidating. My PACE partner Alex and I were welcomed with open arms. There was no hierarchy in the office, everyone called each other Ate (Sister) or Kuya (Brother) or Tito (Uncle), so I felt like I was just with family again. 

The first week of my internship I watched the organisation prepare for their yearly planning. The presentation showcase ended up giving valuable insight into their entire organisation and what they had accomplished. In 2018, the organisation had provided over 20,000 women with contraceptives and taught over 22,000 students throughout Palawan, with only 30 staff on their team. Can you believe that? 30! What they had achieved truly amazed me! Their work was inspiring. 

Roots of Health worked to empower women and youth in the Philippines to continue to lead healthy reproductive lives. The organisation offered service delivery such as; family planning, counselling, free contraceptives, health information, prenatal checkups and pap smears in their clinic in Puerto Princesa. Roots of Health is a local NGO that also works with youth by going to schools and isolated areas to teach their modules on HIV, the reproductive system, puberty, gender and sexuality. 

It was hard to believe that women didn’t have easy access to healthcare in the Philippines when it should be a human right! It’s stated that 25% of all Palawan births are attributed to adolescent pregnancies and HIV cases in the Philippines have increased by 19.85% since 2016. It’s evident that women and youth have not been receiving the proper healthcare and knowledge to prevent accidental pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. I quickly found out that most clinics in Palawan didn’t have trained nurses to do particular procedures such as contraceptives services or HIV testing. Most of the schools didn’t provide a lot of information about sex, contraceptives and sexual transmitted diseases because of their conservative morals and beliefs. 

I only found out how far women were travelling when I started interviewing clients at the clinic for a piece that I was doing called ‘Humans of Palawan.’ Women would travel to the Roots of Health clinic from the North of Palawan to receive their contraceptives or other needs. Even though I didn’t know how to speak Tagalog, I was able to understand it so clients could more easily communicate with me. The nurses were kind and translated my interview questions. I wanted to make sure that the clients’ stories were portrayed on social media truthfully; in a way that the ROH followers could relate to and to make them consider asking about their health status at local clinic. It was a chance for the clients to speak about their experiences and how the services changed their lives.

I watched my first interviewee laugh nervously, as she sat down in front of me. She continued to twist her white handkerchief on her lap. 

“I’m originally from Dao, Capiz, in the Visayas. When I was 12 years old, my family decided it was time for a change so we moved to Palawan in 1991. I’m 39 years old now and I’m a stay-at-home mother living with my husband and 9 children. This is my first time visiting the Roots of Health clinic. I usually receive my DMPA injections at my community clinic but at the moment the contraceptive isn’t available. I can’t afford to miss a session so when I heard good reviews about the ROH clinic through friends, I knew I could rely on them to provide the service that I needed. I was on the pill before but once I gave birth to my last child 4 years ago, I decided to change my contraceptive method because I was getting really bad headaches. I couldn’t take it anymore, it kept getting worse as I got older. As soon as I started my DMPA injections the headaches disappeared. It felt great to have a clear head again. I should probably get an implant but I’m still afraid to use it. Maybe I’ll build up the courage to get it one day, but for now, I’ll just continue to travel to the clinic every 3 months.”

I wish I had told her that she gave me the confidence to talk to more clients. I was just as nervous as her because I thought nobody would be open to talk to me. I was ready to take on more, and I sat down with my second interviewee.

“I’m not from Puerto Princesa, I don’t remember when I moved here but my family is from Negros Occidental, the Visayas. I have 7 children and my youngest is 3 years old. I started using the implant after my last child because I knew I didn’t want anymore children. It’s not easy raising 7 children but it’s rewarding being a mother. I came here today because I’ll be taking out my implant that was given to me at my health center in Taytay. It’s my first time here, I was referred by one of the nurses to come to Roots of Health because the clinic nurses weren’t trained to take out implants. I do appreciate contraceptives being free but when the nurses aren’t trained to do a certain service it’s hard having to travel to another clinic so far away to get what you need. I know the ROH nurses are trained to put implants in as well but I won’t be getting it again. I’ve been feeling dizzy lately with the implants, so, I’m going back to my DMPA injections because I remember I didn’t feel dizzy when I was on it.”

My confidence growing, I spoke to a third woman.

“I’m 28 years old and I live in Santa Lourdes. I have 3 children, aged 10, 8 and 5 years old. I’ve always wanted 2 girls and 1 boy, so now that I’ve had that, I might wait a few years before I start thinking about having another kid. It’s not my first time at the Roots of Health clinic, I’ve been coming here since 2013. Even though I have to travel over 30 minutes to get to the clinic, I know it’s worth it because the nurses have always treated me well. I tell my friends to come to the ROH clinic all the time. I actually brang one of my friends here today to get a DMPA injection. I am also currently on the DMPA injection. I was on the implant but it didn’t work out for me. I found out during a check up here that I had breast mass on one of my breasts so the implant had to be taken out. Thank the lord, it wasn’t cancerous. I still needed an operation to get it removed. I’m very happy now. I enjoy working and taking care of my kids. I still don’t have to worry about unexpected pregnancies.”

And finally, my fourth and last interview.

“When I was 10 years old I moved to Puerto Princesa with my mum from Sorsogon. We moved in with my lola (grandmother) even though we didn’t get along with her very well. Now 26 years later, I’m living here with my husband and 4 children. I came here for the first time back in February 2016. I heard about Roots of Health through my local health center. My bunso (youngest) was already 2 years old during that time and I knew that I didn’t want another child, so a few days later I decided to visit the Roots of Health clinic to get my first implant. For the last 3 years, I haven’t had any complications with my implant and I haven’t become pregnant so I’m back here again to remove my old implant and get it replaced with a new one. I don’t really go out of my way to talk about my implant to people that I know but when it does come up in conversations I do recommend that people visit Roots of Health.”

I had spoken to over 30 clients during my internship and it amazed me how these strong women took charge to change their lives. The women were gaining knowledge on how to improve their health and wellbeing through the Roots of Health programs that they provided at the clinic. It was a privilege to witness the teams work, behind closed doors and out in the field. Their dedication to providing awareness and helping women displays a true love for their people.