Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Women’s Month is greeted with the approval of Rice Tariffication Bill, the reclamation projects in Manila Bay and the administration’s refusal to recognize the demands of contractual and underpaid laborers such as the protesting NutriAsia workers and Sumifru plantation workers in Liwasang Bonifacio. All these pressing issues have a crippling effect on mothers. Women, who take on the role of child rearing and housekeeping, are first and foremost farmers, plantation workers, fisher folk, and laborers.
What is the role of feminism in these trying times? Many will say that we are dealing with the same level of misogyny, the same gender stereotypes and exploitation as the women of the ‘70s and ‘80s. “We need to deepen and broaden people’s understanding of what feminism is … For as long as there is violence against women, there is no equality,” says Nathalie Africa Verseles, Director of the Women’s and Genders Studies of the University of the Philippines.
This month, we pay tribute to five Filipinas who helped organize one of the first women’s organizations in the country. According to Africa, “There’s a spectrum of feminism. We don’t even talk in terms of just feminism but rather feminisms.”
“It’s necessary to acknowledge that even if feminists work from different ideologies, all of them are doing something salient to contribute to achieve social justice and social transformation,” says Africa.
Patricia “Tati” Licuanan
Patricia Licuanan started as a young social scientist. While she was studying development programs, as a social psychologist, she saw how women were not benefitting from the programs.
“They would develop programs for farmers and programs for the farmer’s wives. But women were the farmers themselves,” says Licuanan “They are involved in all the aspects of agriculture. Yet the programs were not designed for them. They were designed for their husbands. The government programs should realize that women do so much important things in the agriculture ... ”
This pushed her to write “Some are More Unequal than Others,” one of the many scholarly works that she published as an early advocate for women’s rights and issues. Licuanan became the Chair of the National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women (NCFRW) and headed Asia Pacific Women’s Watch (APWW), an non-government institution network, from 1987 to 1992.
“Women should have choices. It is their choice if they want to go abroad. However, going abroad should not lead to their victimization and oppression. They are there because they want to earn a decent living and that should happen.” — Patricia Licuanan
She was also one of the early voices of Overseas Filipino Workers and the problems of their families. Strong voices, according to Licuanan, would dismiss the issue and insist that these circumstances justify the fact that women must stay at home. “Women should have choices. It is their choice if they want to go abroad. However, going abroad should not lead to their victimization and oppression. They are there because they want to earn a decent living and that should happen.”
Women’s issues were often dismissed in the academe as well. While heading the Commission on Higher Education from 2010 until 2018, with the help of activists and women advocates, she developed academic programs and formed a technical panel on gender and development. They came up with a CHED Memorandum Order in Higher Education that mainstreamed gender and development in colleges and universities. That memorandum order modified school procedures and helped set up the process to handle issues on sexual harassment. It even led to the establishment of women centers in some universities.
Now, she considers her participation in the 4th World Conference on Women as one of her lasting contributions to the advancement of women. “I [oversaw] the substantive preparation for the Conference. I chaired the Committee that drafted and negotiated the Beijing Platform for Action. It was bloody but we were very luck. We came out with a very enlightened platform.”
The Beijing Platform for Action, that was borne out of the Beijing World Conference on Women, is an agenda for women’s empowerment. According to Licuanan, one of its crucial mission is to “remove all the obstacles to women’s active participation in all sphere of public and private life through a full and equal share in economic, social, cultural and political decision-making.”
Teresita “Ging” Quintos Deles
Teresita “Ging” Deles helped mother women’s organizations such as FILIPINA, Women’s Action Network for Development (WAND) and Legislative Advocates for Women (LAW) working on the first laws protecting women. “Changing the status of women. Transforming how women are, how gender roles are, requires the use of power differently… It could also mean opposing and doing strategies against people who hold power,” says Deles. “Sometimes, it may get really dark. One has to be ready for it.”
Deles began structured work as a feminist-activist in 1980s. Back then they were fighting to overcome barriers for women’s equal participation for the country. “It was transforming burdens and responsibilities both inside and outside the house [and addressing] multiple burdens of women … It was the insight that poor women suffered not just being poor but as women. In the natural order of things, the third world women suffered still another burden.” Deles was also a peace advocate, she co-founded the Coalition for Peace, the first non-government that aimed to end the ongoing conflicts in the Philippines. She then moved to grassroots communities to help them develop their own piece initiatives.
“Organizing means making time for meetings. Having long conversations that sometimes do not seem to get anywhere but are important to finally be leveling off and understanding. As the famous dictum of women’s movement goes, ‘the personal is political.’” — Teresita Quintos Deles
Known as a convener among women’s organizations, Deles has provided different platforms for women to come together and talk across their different devices. She insists that organizing is important. “I get the sense that younger people may be a bit wary about being too organized, being co-opted into structures,” she says. “They will have to find out a way of organizing that works with them. I cannot believe that one can do power strategy that does not organize people. Organizing means making time for meetings. Having long conversations that sometimes do not seem to get anywhere but are important to finally be leveling off and understanding. As the famous dictum of women’s movement goes, ‘the personal is political.’”
“As we can see, in the Philippines now, after so much gains and advancement, misogyny can [still] rear its ugly head. What we thought we had already gained and fought for are now again under threat,” Deles warns. She was the first female Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPPAP) and Lead Convener of the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAP-C). She has been doing development work for grassroots community and non-government work before working for the OPPAP and NAP-C.
Karina David, part of the female duo Inang Laya, was a former community development professor before forming a band. “Music has a very powerful impact on ordinary people especially on Filipino … In the anti-dictatorship struggle, songs became part of the program,” she says. “No longer entertainment, no longer pang-alis ng sawa but just like another speech.”
The duo is composed of Becky Demetillo Abraham on vocals and David on guitars. Inang Laya went on concert tours all over the country especially during Lakbayan and during anti-dictatorship rallies. “One time, we were in Mendiola, on top of a jeepney, singing to flanks of soldiers with their helmets and shields. We couldn’t see any of them but we knew there were snipers. So, nangangatog ang tuhod,” she says. “First, we were turned away from the soldiers, the crowds started shouting, harap sa sundalo! Harap naman kaming dalawa. After a while you could see fingers tapping on the shields. After a while, you could see the heads [nodding]. Nakiki-kanta-kanta. Of course, three hours later, ti-near gas kami. Okay lang.”
“Sometimes, there are young people who insist on basta, peminista ako, wala akong pakialam sa iba. I think that is a disservice to the blossoming of a real feminist movement.” — Karina Constantino-David
Inang Laya started as a group of academics who only wanted to record all the songs of protests from the past to the present. “We thought since we were lowly-paid professors in the university, we could record these songs for posterity and at the same time, save a lot of money and give it away as Christmas gifts,”she says. “So we recorded from 1800s onwards — the songs of the Katipunan, the songs of guerilla struggle up to the anti-Martial Law songs.” The album was launched at the UP Faculty Center and all 500 copies sold out. They reprinted and students insisted that they sing in their mass actions.
David began doing non-government organization work in the early ‘90s. They conducted seminars on violence against women, trained paralegals in communities so they could help stop domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence. “I still see that while it is necessary to segregate the feminist from the political, it is also necessary to look at the feminist side, within the larger structures. Sometimes, there are young people who insist on basta, peminista ako, wala akong pakialam sa iba. I think that is a disservice to the blossoming of a real feminist movement.”
David refused to join the beginnings of the feminist movement in the ‘70s. She observed how the movement was fractured and politicized. Eventually, she began doing non-government organization activities for Harnessing Self-Reliant Initiatives and Knowledge (HASIK) that focused on urban poor, women and children. She also held positions in Caucus of Development NGO Networks and Women’s Action Network for Development (WAND) before becoming the Chair of Civil Service Commission.
“There was always this attempt at distinguishing the feminists from the political but at the same time it was always politics in control… Today, I think we need allies. First and foremost [allies] among women and then with men. There are enough semi-enlightened men at this point who can see the feminist side of the progressive struggle and do not just say, as they used to tell us in the past ipapanalo muna natin ang rebolusyon, saka na ang babae. That cannot be because one half of the world has to be part of the change. If we are not, then that is not change.”
Sister Mary John Mananzan
“You have to tell the story of Judith, of Esther, of Mary and all the strong women of the Bible. You should read the Bible from the perspective of women. If you are a man, like the patriarchal priests, [you] would consider Mary as a model of obedience, of being the handmaid of the Lord. They would use her as a model to make women subservient,” says Sister Mary John Mananzan, who belongs to the Benedictine Missionary Sisters. She founded the Institute of Women’s Studies of St. Scholastica’s College and co-founded FILIPINA, the first consciously feminist organization in the Philippines. She believes that in teaching religion, feminist theologians must deconstruct what is oppressive and construct and enhance what is liberating. Although Mananzan is a nun, she is also for the reproductive health law.
“A feminist like me would say, no, you did not read the Gospel as a whole! If you read it, you would see that Mary is a very strong woman. Look at her song, she says there, God shall put down the mighty from their seat. That’s revolutionary. God will send away the rich empty and feed the poor. That is very social justice, hindi ba?” She formed FILIPINA with Ging Deles, Remy Rikken and Irene Santiago. In 1984, feminists groups started sprouting. FILIPINA initiated a meeting at St. Scholastica’s College and formed an umbrella organization that will unite all the women’s movement. They called it GABRIELA and Mananzan acted as the federation’s Chair for 18 years.
She was a political activist fighting against Marcos before becoming a feminist. “Our feminism should always be in the context of social transformation. If you put feminism by itself, hanging in the air, it’s not going to do a lot of good. It would just be about the relationship of men and women and has nothing to do in the transformation of society.” It was through a Women’s Conference in Venice when she first realized that one cannot have social transformation unless the gender question is resolved. “I made up my mind, when I return to the Philippines, I would see to it that the woman question would be included as an essential part of national transformation.” From then on, she focused on giving gender consciousness seminar among grass roots women.
“A feminist like me would say, no, you did not read the Gospel as a whole! If you read it, you would see that Mary is a very strong woman. Look at her song, she says there, God shall put down the mighty from their seat. That’s revolutionary. God will send away the rich empty and feed the poor. That is very social justice, hindi ba?” — Sr. Mary John Mananzan
Mananzan believes that the Philippines has one of the best laws protecting women. “We even have the Magna Carta of Women, which is not present in all the countries. Lately, the Commission on Higher Education made a memorandum order. We are the only country that has mandated that all tertiary education should have gender mainstreaming.” However, Mananzan also admits that the country is very poor in implementation. “For example, the law on 9262, which is domestic violence. That could help a lot of women but how will women know about it? How many law enforcers know about it? We may have many laws but the implementation is very poor. I have to say, we have not reached even fifty percent of the women.”
Feminism, for Mananzan, asks: “Number one, are you aware that there is such a thing as a woman question? That means that there is oppression, discrimination and exploitation of women as women. It cuts across class, race, creed, and nationality. It is an ideologically, structural and global problem. If you are aware of that, are you willing to be a part of the change? In whatever capacity you may have? If your answer is I am aware and I am willing to be part of the change. You are a feminist.”
Sylvia “Guy” Claudio
Likhaan is a non-government organization that works with grassroots women on issues of reproductive and sexual health and rights. The highest cause of death among women, according to Sylvia Claudio, is violence from intimate partners. In a particular age group, it is not heart attacks or accidents that cause women’s death but violence.
“We began asking ourselves, if it’s really primary health care, why aren’t contraceptives part of the programs? If it’s really primary health care why are violence against women not integrated in the programs?” These questions pushed her to found LIKHAAN or Linangan ng Kababaihan. Now, the organization has been around for 30 years.
“Feminism is such a huge term. It encompasses so much of life. You could start in any location. Start where it gives you pleasure and makes sense.” — Sylvia Claudio
Sylvia “Guy” Claudio is the Dean of the College of Social Work and Community Development of the University of the Philippines. She became an activist in high school, during the First Quarter Storm. She helped establish civil organizations on health and women’s rights such as Women in Crisis Center, Media Action Group and Health Alliance for Democracy. She gives free counseling services for women and LGBT survivors of violence.
She believes the best approach to development work is focusing on how people would want to live fulfilled and happy lives. “Having people accept pleasure and sexuality is part of development. Development theories have to understand that you will not be successful of these things if you think of pleasure —I don’t mean just sexual pleasure.” She observes that the mainstream developmental theory and work have taken on an attitude that sexuality is dangerous. “It’s not an area for academic discussion and genuine concern. That it’s peripheral to the goals of ending poverty.” Claudio insists that resistance on actual policies and programs can be traced to the condemnatory approach to safe sex practices rather than focusing on people’s right to sexual pleasure.
“Feminism is such a huge term. It encompasses so much of life. You could start in any location. Start where it gives you pleasure and makes sense,” says Claudio. “If others starting from elsewhere, they don’t seem to be with you. They in fact may seem contradictory to you. Don’t make that a reason to fight among themselves.” Claudio explains that contradictions are present because people come from different positions are affected by power structures. Contradictions may be resolved, she says, without a “them and us” thinking or an exclusivist approach to politics.
Photos by ELOISA LOPEZ
Video by SAMANTHA LEE
Produced by PORTIA LADRIDO, SAMANTHA LEE, SHEBANA ALQASEER, AND MICH DULCE