While feminism seems to be en vogue (based on the proliferation of statement slogan shirts and branded empowerment campaigns targeted towards women), many are still intimidated by the term or are afraid to be associated as one. In fact, for some Filipinos, the word feminist is synonymous to being a man-hater, an angry activist, or a closeted lesbian.
First of all- Who is a feminist? Feminism doesn’t mean the privileging of the rights of women over men. What a feminist actually wants are equal rights for all- REGARDLESS of gender, color, or ethnicity.Unfortunately, majority of the power holders all over the world are currently men, so the rules of the world are also currently skewed in their favor. A feminist actively fights for a level playing field, by seeking to eliminate gender-based discrimination and violence, until we all have an equal seat at the table.
Surely these issues don’t apply to the Philippines? We’ve had two female presidents and a good number of female CEOs/COOs/CFOs. We have the Magna Carta of Women, which promotes equal economic opportunities, the anti violence against women and children of 2004, and the anti-rape law of 1997. WEF ranked us as 10th in terms of gender equity. Our country seems pretty awesome when it comes to treating women.
According to the 2017 Trafficking persons in report, Filipino women and children, particularly from indigenous communities, and remote areas are one of the most vulnerable populations to sex trafficking, domestic servitude, and other forms of forced labor. According to the International Labor Organization, there are 60,000 to 100,000 children, majority of them girls, who are victims of prostitution rings in the Philippines. Online sexual exploitation is difficult to catch and is an underreported crime so these numbers could be just a fraction of what’s actually happening. Globally, we have one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates and maternal mortality rates. This is a country where for every P100 that a man earns, a woman only earns P76, women deal with catcalling on a daily basis, and where survivors of rape and sexual assault are still afraid to come out because people, including politicians and media personalities, tend to say that it was the victims’ fault.
You see my problem with celebrating our little wins in the feminism sphere a bit too much, is that it drives us to complacency. We forget, or we choose not to ask, about the stories behind the statistics. We forget to care about the faces behind the numbers.
We forget about 7 year-old Anna who takes off her clothes every time someone offers her burger and fries because that's how her abuser got her to take off her clothes when she was still working in an online sex den. There’s Alma, who came back to her family in a casket, after being illegally recruited by her Uncle into a an abusive home in Saudi Arabia where she was forced to work 20 hours a day, with little food and sleep. Or Marissa, who had to drop out of college when she was 19 because she got pregnant early, and has to put up with her live-in partner who beats her senselessly every time he gets drunk, because she’s jobless and has no way of feeding her five kids on her own.
Yes there are women like myself who received a great education, enjoys a well-paying job, and has the freedom to direct the course of my life, but there are many others who can’t. And we need more Filipino feminists, because we need people who will tell these stories and who will do what they can to stop them from happening over and over again.
Being a feminist starts by choosing not to look away even if the facts make me uncomfortable- by internalizing the sad reality that the same system that benefitted me failed so many women and children. This reflection should then culminate with the commitment to contribute a solution.
First is to invest in providing opportunities for women and children from low-income backgrounds, specially those from far-flung areas. If you dissect these numbers and these stories, it’s poverty, and the desperation it brings, that make women and children vulnerable to grave abuse. In my life’s work, I’ve witnessed the power of education to equip individuals with the tools they need to transform the course of their life- unlocking new doors of opportunities they wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.
I’ve also seen the importance of a good formation- of educating girls that they are strong, and educating boys that part of being strong is to be vulnerable. You see, stereotypes are like straightjackets that box a child into a role, When you take these away - you allow children the chance to fully develop, and to be whole and complete on their own.
Second is to find ways to constantly learn, and educate the people within one’s sphere of influence about these issues. Create opportunities where we can discuss and challenge preconceived notions and systemic inequalities, and co-create solutions that would help make a dent in addressing these problems.
Today, I encourage you to stop being oblivious and stop looking away. Every time you do, you give permission to the abusers. Educate yourself: read about the different issues related to gender-based discrimination and violence, even if they make you sick to your stomach. Share these stories even if it won’t get 500 likes. Do something concrete: Volunteer as a mentor; Donate to organizations fighting against human trafficking; When you see someone catcalling, let that person know that it’s not okay. Speak up about these issues, and do so with compassion - even if you are angry, even if you’ve been a victim.
Use your voice because you can. No matter what your gender is, proudly call yourself a feminist. When you do, you embolden others to do the same. And know that you’re standing up for Anna, and Maria, and Alma, and a million other nameless women who are begging not to be forgotten.