Sunday, March 21, 2010

Equal Rights for Filipinas: Almost There?

Like many other countries, the Philippines is currently observing International Women's Month. When it comes to women's rights, the culture of this country is truly a paradox. In some respects Filipinas are ahead of their American counterparts as for example in career opportunities. Women in the Philippines been active for decades in the professions such as medicine, law, broadcast journalism, government service and politics, and in such fields as engineering, and architecture for which American women until recently were considered unsuitable. Yet unlike in the U.S. women here are barred from occupations such as construction and operation of public utility vehicles. On the other hand there are Filipinas working in law enforcement and serving in the military including the PMA (Philippine Military Academy). In the barios and rural areas, women toil alongside the men and experience the same hardships.

The near-egalitarian status of women in the Philippines as compared to most other third-world countries may be the result of the matriarchal influence of the pre-Magellan Malay culture here that 300 years of colonization by the patriarchal Spanish were never able to completely erase. However, where Filipino women are negatively impacted is in their role as child bearers. The maternal mortality rate here is high especially among those in the lower socio-economic ranks: 200 out of every 100,000 women die in childbirth. This is due to a lack of access to quality medical care among the poor and equally importantly a very limited access to birth control measures such as as condoms and birth control pills, due to the opposition by the Catholic Church. (See my post "The CBCP: Pro-Life But Against the Living").

Yet the President of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo could have overcome this obstacle by exercising political will during her six year term which ends this year. For example she refused to support such measures as the Reproductive Health Act, which was recently defeated in the current session of Congress: As a conservative Catholic, she opposes government assistance in providing the people with access to artificial family planning means and education. This just goes to show that a woman in power does not necessarily empower women.

Interestingly, local women's advocacy groups did not criticize Arroyo on this issue during their protest march on International Women's Day concerning injustices against women. Yet they did confront the presidential candidates (all males) regarding their lack of position on women's issues.

Although President Arroyo's term officially expires in May, there is concern that she will try to hang on to her power one way or another. But if in fact she does "go quietly", one can only hope that her successor will vigorously address the matter of overpopulation that is one of the root causes of poverty in this country so that instead of winding up as street urchins as is the fate of so many kids here, the majority of Filipino children may be born into families who can materially and emotionally provide for their needs. In turn this will give the people an opportunity for a brighter future--regardless of gender.

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