Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered government agencies to offer contraceptives to six million women free of charge in a move that could be opposed by the country's Catholic Church. Duterte said that he aimed to reduce poverty and unwanted pregnancies in the Catholic-majority nation.

The Filipino leader signed an executive order – a step which his predecessors were hesitant to implement – approving funds for birth control measures. According to the order, two million women, who are identified as poor, will get access to contraceptives by 2018 and the remaining four million thereafter.

The 71-year-old's announcement, which was signed on 9 January, but released to the public on Wednesday (11 January), read: "This order aims to intensify and accelerate the implementation of critical actions necessary to attain and sustain 'zero unmet need for modern family planning' for all poor households by 2018."

Government agencies have been asked to cooperate with civil services and local-level parties to identify eligible people as the campaign kicks off.

The president wants to scale down the poverty rate to 14% by 2022 – when he leaves office – from the current rate of 21.6%.

"There is a plan in the next six months for local governments to go out in the field, to do house-to-house visits, identify those in need of family planning, [and work] with all these agencies," National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) Director General Ernesto Pernia told reporters. "You don't want women to have unwanted babies because then, they would have difficulty raising their babies to their full potential."

However, the move is likely to face stiff resistance from the Catholic Church, which had fought tooth and nail in the past against similar measures. Around 80% of the country's population is Roman Catholic.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte wants to scale down the poverty rate to 14% by the time he leaves officeReuters