Monday, March 07, 2005

The Filipino Women’s Century-Old Struggle for National Liberation



The struggle of Filipino women for national liberation turns a century this month. For more than a century, from the revolutionary contributions of the woman General Gabriela Silang against colonialism to the very first suffragist organization founded in 1905, the women’s liberation movement in the Philippines has made considerable development in terms of advancing the cause of women against feudal and colonial oppression and exploitation.


by: AVA DANLOG
Bulatlat/Vol. V, No. 5/March 6-12, 2005

For this year, militant women’s groups, led by Gabriela, the largest multi-sectoral alliance of women’s organizations in the country, launch a campaign against President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her anti-national, anti-people and anti-women policies.

Historical significance

International Women’s Day falls on March 8 because of its historical significance in women activism. It was in March 8, 1957 when women workers of garment factories in New York marched to protest against low wages, 12-hour daily work schedule and the oppressive working conditions. This was prompted by the death of women and children when a garment factory caught fire because they were locked inside at night. The demonstration was violently dispersed.

It was in March 8, 1908 that marked the extensive protest of women against capitalist exploitation. On this day, 30,000 women workers marched to call for more humane working conditions and legislation against child labor and the right to suffrage of women.

March 8 was then proclaimed as International Women’s Day in 1977, when the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution mandating the observance of International Women’s Day by its member nations. But as early as 1910, international labor groups have paid tribute to women’s heroic struggles by celebrating March 8 as International Women’s Day, several decades before the UN would do so.

In the Philippines, the first feminist organization, Asociacion Feminista Filipina, was established in 1905. Although it focused largely on social issues, such as maternal and child care, prostitution and gambling, and consisted mainly of women from the upper and middle classes, its birth signaled the awakening of the Filipino women’s feminist consciousness and later paved the way for the establishment of militant and political women’s groups.

The first observance of International Women’s Day in the country was in 1971 when Makibaka (Makabayang Kilusan ng Bagong Kababaihan or Patriotic Movement of Modern Women) and Katipunan (Katipunan ng Bagong Kababaihan or Association of Modern Women) mobilized women in protest of poverty.

When martial law was declared, mass demonstrations were prohibited and Makibaka went underground, becoming one of the first organizations to be a member of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). It was only in 1984 when militant March 8 commemorations once again commenced, spearheaded by Gabriela.

Advances in the women’s movement

According to Gabriela Women’s Party Rep. Liza Maza, herself a former Gabriela secretary general, the fact that women are being organized and the militancy of women is being sustained, are manifestations of the movement’s development, especially since the patriarchal value system is deeply rooted in the Filipino culture.

She added, “There is now legislation on defining violence against women as a crime. So in that sense, the women’s movement, I think that is not just an achievement on legislation, but largely the achievement of the women’s movement that have lobbied and advocated for enshrining the rights of women in the law.”

According to Joms Salvador, national chairperson of GABRIELA Youth, the movement has reached a lot in terms of popularizing the cause. More women’s organizations are established. Internationally, the Philippine experience in organizing women is looked upon. Salvador adds that the diversity of women organizing in the country is a measure of how stable and strong the women’s movement is.

Women’s situation

Still, feudal and foreign oppression and exploitation of women continue. Majority of women, who are rural-based, do not enjoy the right to own land. In a study conducted by Amihan (National Federation of Peasant Women), the disparity can run as high as 10 centavos for a woman agricultural worker for every peso that a man earns.

The same trend applies to female workers who are victims of contractualization and poor working conditions, usually employed in the manufacturing and service sectors. Because of retrenchments and lax labor laws in these sectors, more and more women are forced to emigrate. This, aside from the added burden to women for their traditional roles as homemakers.

In a study conducted by Gabriela, seven out of 10 Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) are female, 44 percent of whom are employed in the service sector while 33 percent is in the entertainment sector. The miserable situation of female OFWs is heightened by racial discrimination and racism.

However, the exploitation of women OFWs roots not just from the racial discrimination in foreign countries or the gender-based oppression, but also from the factors that force them to leave the country: widespread poverty and the government’s labor export policy.

The emigration of females is encouraged by the labor export policy of the Arroyo administration that contributes to the massive global sex trade and modern-day slavery of Filipino women and children, according to Ninotchka Rosca of the Purple Rose Campaign.

Under the Arroyo administration, Filipinos are exported as sex commodity to nearly 200 countries and is a major exporter of women as virtual sex slaves around the world. Almost 600,000 Filipino women are trafficked worldwide under the euphemisms “Guest Relations Officer,” “entertainer” and “cultural dancer.”

Alarmingly, incidences of violence against women and children have risen, particularly rape and sexual abuse. Ten years ago, statistics show that six women and children are raped daily. Last year the figure doubled as 12 women and children become victims of sexual abuse daily. Domestic violence remains widespread with 18 women and children becoming victims of battering daily. This number would surely rise with the current economic crisis. Studies reveal that majority of urban-based domestic violence center on money. In a separate study, more incidences of domestic violence happen during the months of December and May wherein money is needed for the holiday season and the incoming school year.

Economic crisis as the most urgent issue

Of all the issues faced by women, the most pressing would be the economic crisis. According to Maza, the crisis has specific impact on women because they are looked upon as secondary providers. Their contribution in production is valued less than that of men’s.

They don’t receive social services like health and education. And because of their traditional roles, they are burdened with stretching every peso to make both ends meet.

“As one becomes so economically disempowered, the more you become victims of violence. Especially now that poverty is so acute, more violence is present, even in the homes,” she adds.

The passage of the additional 2 percent Value Added Tax (VAT) would then certainly make it harder for women. Gabriela listed seven basic commodities whose prices will surely rise: rice, milk, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), sugar, coffee, soap and cooking oil. All these are commodities that concern mothers and housewives.

For these reasons, the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day call on militancy to oppose the anti-national, anti-people and anti-women policies of the Arroyo administration.

Struggle for national liberation, too

According to Maza, it is important to account the long years of women’s struggles and triumphs in order for society to look into the future and see what else needs to be done. It is a testament to how the women’s movement developed in the Philippines as against the feminist construct with the sole perspective of individual rights.

“I think it is high time to look at it as an overall achievement of women, to look into this undeveloped perspective that the Filipino women have really contributed a lot in our struggle for freedom and democracy and the struggle for the women’s empowerment and the recognition of women’s rights and welfare,” she adds.

The annual observation of International Women’s Day is an effective venue for the re-education of society in understanding our history to discern the historical roots of gender oppression in the country and the role of women in history, Maza also said. The main enemy of women and of the oppressed and exploited peoples is US imperialism which preserves fascism and national, religious and racial chauvinism in the country through the family, religion, state and the media. All these aim to perpetuate the degradation of women and further divide the working class and the people at large, she added.

© 2004 Bulatlat ■ Alipato Publications

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