Portrait of a Filipina Feminist, Part 2

Reproductive rights will enable Filipinos to avoid having more children than they can house, feed and send to school.

Sylvia Estrada Claudio is Director of the Center for Women’s Studies at the University of the Philippines and co-founder of Likhaan, a non-governmental organization which provides direct services to women in marginalized communities, particularly reproductive health. In Part 1, Silvia discusses her early political activism as a medical doctor and a member of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Part 2 deals with her feminism and her support for the Reproductive Health Bill, the RH Bill.

Sylvia’s story

When I blundered back into academe I was in my early thirties. It took me nine years to get my PhD because I wandered off. One semester of not being involved in social issues drove me crazy, and it didn’t improve my scholarship. On the other hand, I really learned to appreciate the discipline and scholarship of the university, which was a welcome relief from the anti-intellectualism I’d seen in the movement. Then I met a movement comrade who said, “I’m setting up the GABRIELA Commission on Women’s Health and Reproductive Rights. Want to help?” I said, “Fine. I’ll be a member of the commission. I won’t get sucked back into the Party, but I’ll help you.” [According to Wikipedia, GABRIELA is an acronym for General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership, and Action. It was named in honor of Gloria Silang, who led a revolt against Spain in the second half of the eighteenth century.]

I began reading about feminism and particularly that area having to do with sexuality, what was then called “reproductive rights.” This was 1988-89. I realized that many of my former comrades were never going to accept feminism, no matter how well-argued, even from a Marxist perspective.

I also helped set up the Philippines’ first women’s rape and crisis center. We didn’t have much in the way of resources, so we debated at first whether it was going to be for only rape victims or only women raped by the military or it would include women suffering from other forms of violence. I was still coming from the perspective of human rights work but only for comrades in the movement—although previously I hadn’t been content with serving only the combatants on our side. Human rights should be for everyone. The decision was made very correctly that, even though there were only a few of us, the center should be for both rape victims and battered women. None of us really understood how to help the victims of rape and sexual harassment. I think that was true of the feminist movement the world over. My psychological training and medical training didn’t help a bit. We had to find a way by reading up on the experiences of other people. I did a discourse analysis of rape stories in tabloids to understand how the culture was treating rape so we could help the women who were coming to our center.

Eventually I was told that if I didn’t finish my dissertation I wouldn’t get my PhD. I was ready to give up, but then my mother died. I think I turned grief into work because she died in July and I got my degree in October. It took two or three months of working on the dissertation and then the defense. I think my professors were all saying, “Let’s push her to get it done.” It came down to a referendum throughout the college faculty, with them all arguing that I was finished, I’d only been a day late, I should be allowed to graduate.

The discourse analysis on rape I’d done for the center became part of my dissertation, along with analysis of pro forma love letters. There was a little 20-peso book of love letters, originally published in 1945 but still available in the 80s. I don’t know whether people actually copied out the letters and sent them or whether they just read the letters for their romantic value. My dissertation was written in Filipino because the degree was in Philippine psychology, but I translated it into English and updated it. It was published in 2004 as Rape, Love and Sexuality: The Construction of Women in Discourse.

Then I heard, “Now that you have a PhD, you have to teach.” The women from the Women and  Development Program of the College of Social Work and Community Development actively recruited me. I was insecure because I’d never taught a day in my life, but they said, “You’ve been teaching peasants and workers. You’ll do just fine.” I found that I really did enjoy teaching.

Eventually, along with others the movement, like Dr. Junice Melgar, I left GABRIELA and founded Likhaan, an NGO which is one of the major supporters on the social movement side of reproductive health. We began eleven or twelve years ago when a bill was filed that was really about reproductive health, rather than family planning and population management. We helped write the RH Bill, working with a political Party called Akbayan, which I eventually joined. Likhaan’s core program continues to be organizing women around health issues. During the early nineties, times when the US foundations had lots of money to give, we used to give comprehensive health services. Then the economic bubble burst, less developmental aid was available, and the Philippines—having become less of a basket case—received less aid. Now Likhaan can only afford to concentrate on reproductive health. We’ve been supplementing the government health care centers in the major urban poor communities that we work with. We continue the community-based health programs that we worked with during the Marcos dictatorship, making sure that there are health services for women. We have a new understanding that even in health care women tend to get neglected, especially with regard to reproductive and sexual health.

In doing its job Likhaan kept coming across all sorts of human rights violations and barriers, for example, a ten-year ban in Manila on all contraceptives and family planning. (Link) Our health workers were refused help and cooperation. We got reports of women being stigmatized for seeking post-abortion care, even in the major hospitals. It was sometimes difficult to find funding. It was very difficult for our clinics to even get contraceptive supplies from government, just because some stupid little bureaucrat in some governmental agency was “pro-life” and didn’t want to give them to us. We’d do something, and then it would just get overturned.

Our view of our work wasn’t that we would replace the government but that as an NGO we would be small and flexible. If we made mistakes, we wouldn’t waste a lot of money, kill a lot of people or diminish the political capital of some progressive politician. We could correct our mistakes very quickly. We were hoping to use our experience to be able to contribute to policy issues for bigger programs. We couldn’t do that when people at various levels of government and various departments opposed reproductive health. We kept banging our heads against the wall. We would say, “Look at this wonderful system we found for tracking contraceptive supplies. Maybe you can do this.” If the people we in the Department of Health were sympathetic, they would try it. Or they would say, “You’ve taught us how to fund a small clinic in an out-of-the-way place. We’ve managed to put it into our system.” But if the next Secretary of the Department of Health was against reproductive health, our efforts would just go to hell.

The last thing we wanted to do was legislative activism. It takes so much time and effort. But the decision was made, and twelve years ago we were very much a part of writing the grandmother of the bill that has finally came out. At first we couldn’t even get it out of the health committee. It was such a big struggle that we were really happy when it finally came out of committee sometime in 2004 or 2005. Then it had to go to the appropriations committee, which is usually a pro forma process. I don’t know of any other bills in the history of Filipino legislation that actually got knocked out of the appropriations committee. So we learned. For many years we’d fail repeatedly, but we’d say, “That’s the democratic process. Let’s keep going.”

However, to my mind you could see how the argument was being won in the eyes of the public. If you look at past surveys, you see increasing numbers of people, then large majorities of people who know the issues: do you want contraception, should government provide contraception, are you against family planning, do you know the Church’s position? People actually say, “I know the bill. I want this bill to be passed.” It’s a great victory—although we were having victories all along. Except for the passage of female suffrage in 1937, I don’t know of any other piece of social legislation which required widespread public support. I wish all social legislation in the country could receive this kind of well-informed public attention, with people listening to the debate and weighing in on the issues. Then we would really be a progressive country and a democratic one.

The Reproductive Health Bill was the second biggest political victory in my life, after the downfall of the Marcos regime. They took about the same amount of time. When we started I had no idea that it would become a battle against the Catholic Church, the most powerful social institution in the Philippines.

I think the Church has lost a lot of power over the last twelve years. It lost its capacity to prevent the bill from passing, to get the legislators and the president and the institutions of government to do its bidding. It lost the capacity to bring people over to its point of view. At some point in the struggle—six years ago maybe—we noticed that the tactics had shifted from talking to people to pressuring the institutions of government. Telling the president and the legislators that there would be punishment coming from their end [threatening the president of the country and professors of Ateneo University with excommunication if they spoke out in favor of the RH Bill]. If you will recall, the government of former President Arroyo was often in crisis. One of the reasons she stayed in power was that the Church’s stand on her was either neutral or supportive. We tracked how she traded off reproductive rights for her own political stability. Her administration was considered as corrupt as the Marcos regime, if not more so. Then later we found out she’d given cars and all sorts of things to some of the bishops. In her speeches she always said, “I will never approve a bill allowing abortion. I am not for reproductive health.” [None of the RH bills have called for the legalization of abortion.] Then the bishops would come to her aid.

This was in contrast to their behavior with the previous presidents. Cardinal Sin and the bishops finally sided against Marcos and were perceived as helping to bring down the dictatorship. They also made statements condemning Estrada, who was a womanizer and a drunk and not very Catholic in the sense of kowtowing to them. They did not call for rallies against Arroyo.

I was raised agnostic. My father was very scientific, and my mother was a strict Bertrand Russell fan. At the age of nine, when I asked about the existence of god, she handed me a book on the major religions. “Here you go, honey. You can read this.” So I don’t feel the sense of betrayal and hurt that my Catholic friends feel, although as a feminist I agree with the perception that the bishops are ideological conservatives with an old, completely unenlightened view of sexuality. My husband, who’s very Catholic, is very angry. He tracks and compiles all these stupid statements from the bishops. That sense of betrayal is possibly more dangerous for the Church than their loss in the battle over the RH Bill. I have friends who are still Catholic and who formed a group called “Catholics for RH.” I tell them that maybe this is an opportunity have a church they really like.

On the evening the bill passed I kept saying, “What’s next?” My office-mates said, “There’s nothing next. It’s done.” I said, “That’s not possible. I’ve been living with this for twelve years.”

GABRIELA filed a divorce bill last year. [Divorce is illegal, and foreign divorces aren’t recognized. Annulments are very expensive.] We should cooperate on that issue, but in terms of the social movement for sexual health and reproductive rights, I think the NGO and maybe even this office—which has put its mandate, its political will and all our researches around reproductive health—will have to step back and look at what will be really helpful for women. We still have the Supreme Court challenge to the RH Law. We need to defend against that, and then we have to help write the implementing rules and regulations. The Department of Health needs help in order to adequately implement the program we fought for. We will be looking to make sure the implementation is done. The mortality rates are not going down just because the law was passed. We need to see those emergency contraceptive care centers put up in villages and municipalities, and that’s a lot of doing, a lot of nagging, a lot of pushing for the budget to be put where the legislature’s mouth is.

The law which passed is not perfect. As a compromise to some of the anti-RH people language was added prioritizing the poor as the recipients of family planning services. I believe this in fact makes it seem more like a population control program, which the anti-RH people always accused the bill of being. Then there’s this equal protection of the unborn, which is all over the place in the bill. So implementing rules and regulations will be crucial, but we think the bill still does a lot. For one thing, no politician can place an outright ban on reproductive rights.

This has become a social movement with so many faces, very different from a leftwing party leading the masses. There’s no one great reproductive health heroine. If you challenge the most powerful social institution in the country, you have to be a social movement. So that’s another “next,” writing about it from our own perspectives.

Toward the end we were joined by young people called the Filipino Freethinkers, who engaged in the RH issue because they saw the Church trampling all over secular and scientific values. They were a late addition to the movement, but crucial. There have been other agnostic-atheist societies in the Philippines, but Freethinkers has become one of the more successful ones because they chose to engage in reproductive health. Their contribution was critical because someone needed to challenge the Church on other grounds, and they did. (Link)

For the RH bill, the second vote was the most crucial one. We won by nine votes. At one point it came down to a two-vote difference. After we’d won the vote—this was about two in the morning—we marched out of the plenary hall to the women who’d been picketing and rallying. Someone said, “You know, when the votes came down to two, people here started crying.” The backbone of our support was the women from poor communities who filled the session halls. Now if you ask them about legislative clauses, they know. For example, at our Christmas party we played a game, and people were joking about whether someone should have gotten a point or not. A woman from a poor community, a woman who doesn’t even have an elementary school education, said. “Well, we can always resolve this by having nominal voting.” We all laughed. These women know the legislative process because they were there.

For this victory it was really important for the poor women to see that they could influence their institutions, that they could make things happen. The recent research on poverty shows that when women feel they can make institutions accountable, even at the local level, when they feel their actions can have an impact on their lives, they are less likely to rate themselves “very poor.” They’re more optimistic about the future. In fact, they’re more likely to engage in activities that mitigate their poverty and do better for their communities and their families.

It’s really important, even for poverty alleviation, that those of us who were engaged in the struggle write about it from a feminist perspective. As you can well imagine some of the writing will not be feminist, but something else altogether—some politician’s memoir. The Church will probably write it in an entirely different way. [See Silvia’s article “Spiritually Pro-RH” (Link) and “RH Law: The Long and Rough Road.” (Link)]

A poster at the Bacolod Cathedral names candidates and parties to vote for (anti-RH and “buhay” or life) and against (pro-RH and “patay” or death). Father Tabora adds commentary.

A reader writes:

I enjoyed the posts about Sylvia… There are too few minds like hers in this world,  Thank you.