Sunday, May 27, 2012

Invisible women

published May 9, 2012 - MST page A5

Compared to the rest of the world, the Philippines is not a laggard on women’s issues. In fact, we rank eighth in the global gender-gap index survey, which means we are at par with countries like Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Ireland, New Zealand, and Denmark in terms of gender equality.

This is not to say it’s always more fun to be a woman in the Philippines.

It’s not fun, for instance, if you are poor and working in the so-called informal sector—as a piece-rate worker, on-call labandera, or vendor.

Leonida Antonio—Ka Nida—is treasurer of the Pambansang Tagapag-Ugnay ng mga Mangggagawa sa Bahay. The group is not exclusive to females, but women outnumber the men anyway because it is the women who are less able to find work in the “formal” sector, with fixed wages, regular working hours and more or less secure working conditions.

It is the women who must, on top of helping their husbands eke out a living, cook and clean and care for the children, and find ways to stretch resources when they are, and they always are, scarce.

“We are essentially a mothers’ organization,” Ka Nida says. Patamaba now has more than 17,000 members.

***

Concepcion delos Santos, or Ka Mary, is a sewer from Bulacan who works at home, sometimes for 16 hours on end, juggling her sewing with her responsibilities as wife, mother and grandmother. Her work is subcontracted by factories who then sell their goods —pajama bottoms, for instance—to vendors in Divisoria and Baclaran. She cannot demand higher wages because the people who give her the job would simply find others willing to do the work for the same low rate.

But sewing is not her main preoccupation these days. Ka Mary is president of the Pambansang Koalisyon ng Kababaihan sa Kanayunan, an umbrella organization composed of 426 organizations in 42 provinces. Patamaba is one of the organizations under this coalition. Now Ka Mary commutes to Manila practically every day, lending her voice to the causes her organization is advancing.

The work also takes Ka Mary and Ka Nida to far-flung provinces in the country, talking to women about their rights.

For example, the law on violence against women and children may be fairly common to us urban dwellers, but it is still a foreign concept to those in remote provinces. Some women believe it is all right for their husbands to beat them up or demand sex any time they want. When some of them go as far as complaining about these to barangay or municipal officials, the latter refuse to intervene, believing it a family affair. Some areas don’t even have women’s desks.

Access to government health facilities is also a problem. Sure, health services and medicine may be available for free. But some women have to travel great distances to the clinics, shelling out P50 to P100 just for the trip, something they could not afford.

On reproductive health, the problem is not just access to contraceptives but plain information. Poor families from the provinces have no idea about the politics determining the fate of the RH bill in Congress. What they know is what they hear from the priests who proclaim from their pulpits that RH bill supporters are evil and that choosing to plan your family through artificial means is tantamount to abortion—an act that would merit the ire of God and the fires of hell.

Alas, these women have no means to know better.

In turn, having too many children amid a lack of ability to provide for their needs breeds poverty and desperation, fueling violence within the family. “Those eleven mother dying daily due to pregnancy-related causes? The number could be bigger because so many cases go unreported,” adds Ka Mary.

She also talks about the unjust practice of marrying off girls as young as nine years old. This is rampant among indigenous peoples in many parts of the country. These children get married and bear their own children at a young age. Their minds, much less their bodies, are not prepared for this,” Ka Mary says.

Both women say going around and talking to women from all over is not easy. Getting wives and mothers to leave their responsibilities for even a few hours has tremendous consequences, translating to income lost or chores left undone.

Some husbands, they share, also do not like “allowing” their wives to attend these meetings. Even Ka Mary’s and Ka Nida’s own husbands had their misgivings in the beginning.

But what keeps these two women going is the look of enlightenment in the faces of the women—and yes, their husbands—as they are made aware of what is and what should be.

It’s a long way to go before invisible women, those belonging to the informal sector and those in remote rural areas, are recognized and given their due. Awareness is a start, though. Towards this goal, Ka Mary and Ka Nida are not about to stop going around anytime soon.

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