Growing up, Cecilia Lopez hoped to escape poverty by finishing school and becoming a teacher. But now 52 years old and having never finished school, she wishes she had learned a few things.
"If I knew back then about the choices in family planning, I would've been able to control having children," said Lopez, who has 12 children. "If it were up to me, I wouldn't want to have so many. But I didn't use family planning, so basically they just kept coming and coming."
She eventually heard about the birth control pill from neighbors, but did not know how it worked. Moreover, she said she could not afford it.
"Instead of spending money on those, I use it to buy food," Lopez said.
Her story is a familiar one in a country where 81% of Filipinos are devout Roman Catholic and 30% live below the poverty line, according to the Philippine National Statistics Office.
While contraception is legal, the majority, like Lopez, do not have access or the means to afford birth control. But that could all change.
After 14 years in limbo, a controversial landmark legislation called the Reproductive Health bill could bring major changes in the country of almost 96 million people. The proposed law requires the government to provide contraceptives, information on modern family planning methods at public health centers and comprehensive reproductive health curriculum in schools.
National surveys show 65-70% of Filipinos support the bill, but it faces fierce opposition by the country's Roman Catholic Church leaders.
Lawmakers are trying to negotiate a compromise, by addressing some of the strongest objections to the bill. The bill's co-author Congressman Edcel Lagman stated that amendments are in the works to emphasize that reproductive health services and information would be geared to the "poorest and most marginalized households."
"In order to obviate the unfounded criticism that the government will distribute contraceptives for free to everyone, the amendments will underscore that only the poorest of the poor will have free access to contraceptives if they are willing acceptors," Lagman said in a press release.
A dozen children
In Lopez's small home in Tondo, a poor neighborhood in Manila, she and her family sleep, cook and eat inside one room.
Seventeen people share a cramped 12-square meter room, one person next to another.
Although limited in space, the room has a sense of order. An array of slippers in different sizes sits next to the front door. The family has one mattress and the rest sleep on the floor, covered with cardboard, mats and blankets. Two pieces of plywood serve as a bed and a desk for one of her children.
During the interview, her sleeping grandchild curled next to her teenage father, using a pair of adult shorts as a blanket.
The walls are covered in family photos. Lopez is most proud of the school pictures showing three of her children, which bear the word "Graduate," showing that they finished elementary school.
Lopez hopes that unlike herself, her children will have choices.
National statistics show that the Philippines population is growing at 1.98% and that it could reach 105 million by 2016. The growth rate is not the problem, said Ugochi Florence Daniels, the Philippine representative to the U.N. Population Fund.
"It's about the quality of life available to the segment of the population having the most children," she said. " Poor women are the ones having more children. So as the Philippine population is growing, it's growing poorer."
Lopez first became pregnant at 17. Since then, she can't recall when she did not struggle to provide basic needs for their children. Her husband, a carpenter does not have steady work.
"If we earn money, they eat," she said, referring to her children. "If we don't, they have nothing to eat all day. Most days they just bear with it. Even when they go to school without food."
"I find it so hard when they go to school without food, without money. When they're hungry. I just want to cry most times."
With no one else to care for her growing family, Lopez stayed home to watch her children. Her adult children struggle to find work, because they didn't graduate from high school.
"The older ones had to stop going to school so the younger ones could start," Lopez said.
But her children appear to be entangled in a familiar cycle. Just like Lopez, her daughter became pregnant at 17. Her son became a father when he was 18, and her 17-year-old son is expecting a child soon. Lopez has three grandchildren.