(Still) Holding Up Half the Sky, CONTEND National Feature for Women’s Day 2009

by rolandotolentino


(Still) Holding Up Half the Sky

Katrina Stuart Santiago, CONTEND National

“Women hold up half the sky” seems like the oldest quote imaginable about woman’s role in society, and yet it can only hold truer in a country like impoverished Philippines, in a time of crisis such as now.

The majority of OFWs who keep our economy afloat with their remittances are women. They are the domestic helpers, the caregivers, the nurses and teachers who dot the world map with their service, underpaid as they are in the country of their hearts. These women are those that the Philippines has failed to serve, which the government has rightly called heroes, but for whom not a whole lot is accorded. Where this act of leaving has spelled danger, her rescue is ruined because it is used as soundbite for every other government official’s campaign.

And yet one needs only to look here, at home, to see the Filipina who is hard on her luck, but who does what she can to survive. These are the Filipinas who continue to do household work for homes other than their own, because it’s the only way to augment whatever income there is. Who live with the lack of social services that they need, who survive through the inflation by eating once a day. Who works long hours, with little pay, as contractual workers with all the injustice this implies. Whose heart is broken everyday by the truth that her suffering is her family’s as well. And then she is made to imagine that she is lucky, because she isn’t part of this statistic: 7 out of 10 of the 10,344 retrenched workers in the Calabarzon processing zones from October 2008 to January 19 2009, are women.

Her counterpart is the Filipina who is secure in the highest offices of government and the biggest of institutions. Because of them, we are made to believe that the woman can do anything. Because of them, we are allowed to imagine that equality exists, that we now have the same opportunities as men, that there is no more discrimination in the workplace. That all Filipinas may succeed in any career, if only she worked hard enough.

Because of them, we forget that more than being a woman, it is being rich or poor, educated and uneducated, being empowered and being powerless that spells the difference. And so we have come to have a false sense of freedom, liberation, equality, justice.

Here, in a country where the first thing a woman goes through when she cries rape is character persecution. Where the rape victim, two years since she was proven correct, is still seen as someone who “asked for it”. The bigger tragedy is that this need not happen with an American serviceman – it could happen to any woman who screams rape in this country. The only tragedy worse than that is what’s unsaid: that those who are quick to question the victim’s character are women as well, who side with the accused and presume he is innocent, because he doesn’t “look” like he could do it, he is educated and well-bred (and goodness an American? No way!), given all that this implies.

The basis of these suspicions of course, is the continued belief that all a Filipina wants, still, is to be married and bear children. And it’s clearly a particular kind of Catholicism that oppresses women in this way. This is the kind of Catholicism that continues to dictate that we must be wives (who must honor and serve our husbands) and mothers (who don’t mind having more children than we can bear). And while many an educated woman imagines that she can have it otherwise, the majority don’t know any better than to believe that this is all true. That this is an expectation they must fulfill, even when they cannot care for their bodies and children properly, even when government fails to provide them with jobs to be able to take care of their children’s needs. That is of course if she’s saved from being part of this statistic: every day, 10 to 11 women die during childbirth.

Many more statistics and stories such as these is what the Magna Carta for Women and Reproductive Health bills are grounded on. Among many things, both bills will allow any Filipina, rich or poor, educated and otherwise, anywhere in the country, to decide on her body. She will be informed on her rights to her self, and she will be introduced to the concept of choice: she can choose how many children to have given her body and finances. She can also opt to ignore that choice and have a dozen kids, well and good. All these bills are telling her is: this is your body and your life, you decide on it.

That the Catholic religious in most all its denominations is against this brings to the fore the truth of religion’s power in this country: both the Magna Carta for Women and the Reproductive Health Bill are languishing in the Senate, and the numbers never look good. Separation of Church and State? Not in this country, and more particularly not when it comes to telling the woman: you’re an adult with your own mind, exercise your right to choose, decide what you want for your body and life.

This of course, is but one of the Filipina’s many problems, the solutions to which take forever to be made into law. The Act to Upgrade the Minimum Salary of Public School Teachers has yet to be approved two years since its inception, even when we’ve lost the best and brightest of our public school teachers to the U.S. and China, and even as the ones who’ve stayed continue to be blamed for the sad state of education in the country. And while the Filipina is victimized by inflation and oil deregulation, laws have yet to be created to protect her. Instead she is treated to talks about Charter Change, which allows foreigners to own land and corporations here, and become employer and boss to millions of working class women, with all the oppressions that this concedes.

The only thing worse than any of these is the truth that the Filipina is most at the mercy of the most powerful woman in this country, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s whims. Without a doubt the Filipina will suffer through the latter’s contingency plan, which banks on funds from the social security offices GSIS and SSS. It is difficult enough to get one’s benefits from these institutions, that to take from what should be put into serving the working class better (why must an SSS I.D. take seven months?) is just despicable. These Filipinas put out their hard earned cash to these institutions for their own personal contingencies, they didn’t put it there to save the world – that’s the government’s job after all. Here is a woman-president who oppresses her own, and it just might be the oppression of the worst kind we’ve seen.

And with no promise that the crisis will get better, it is entirely believable that the Filipina will do the unimaginable, the painful, the dangerous, in order to survive. That is the only thing she knows to do, the only way she knows to live, at a time when she is expected to – and can’t help but – hold up half the sky.

Data from Gabriela Women’s Party, Ibon Philippines and the Alliance of Concerned Teachers. Copies of the Magna Carta for Women Bill and the Reproductive Health Bill obtained from the Philippine Senate’s website http://www.senate.gov.ph.