Frail, with a leathery face streaked with wrinkles, 48-year-old Cabenan suffers from untreated gall stones and constant fatigue because her body has never had the time to properly recover from her successive pregnancies.
“We only wanted three children. But they kept coming and coming,” Cabenan told AFP this week at her ramshackle home in Baseco, a massive slum in Manila where more than 60,000 people compete for space.
“I was always pregnant and there was no time to take care of myself because I had to keep working to help my husband feed the children. I have tried everything, a stevedore (dock worker), a laundry woman, fish monger and a vegetable seller.”
Cabenan had her first child when she was just 14. When she nearly died giving birth to her youngest, who is now six, she finally abandoned the demands of the Catholic Church to not use contraceptives.
A devout Catholic who still goes to mass twice a week, Cabenan nevertheless regrets following the church dogma so strictly and said she welcomed the Responsible Parenthood Law that officially took effect on Thursday.
“I tell women now, please do not be like me. I have too many children, and sometimes I do not know what to do and just cry, especially when they fight,” she said.
The law requires government health centres to hand out free condoms and birth control pills, benefiting tens of millions of the country’s poor who would not otherwise be able to afford or have access to them.
It also mandates that sex education be taught in schools and public health workers receive family planning training, while post-abortion medical care has been made legal for the first time.
Proponents say the law will slow the country’s rapid population growth, cut widespread poverty and reduce the number of mothers dying at child birth.
“This is a triumph for poor women and girls who would otherwise have no access to these things,” the United Nations Population Fund’s country representative, Ugochi Daniels, told AFP.
While the plight of Cabenan is extreme, it is common in the Philippines to see very large families, particularly among the poor masses. One of Cabenan’s neighbours has given birth to 16 children.
The Philippines has one of the highest birth rates in the world – 3.1 for every woman – and the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the Asia-Pacific, according to the medical charity group Merlin.
The Catholic Church, which counts 80 percent of the country’s 100 million people as its followers, had for more than a decade successfully lobbied and intimidated politicians into blocking pro-birth control acts in parliament.
However President Benigno Aquino, a bachelor who is one of the most popular leaders in the country’s history, used his political capital to defy the church and help steer the Reproductive Health Act through parliament last year.