Transforming women’s silent or silenced issues

A rural health unit in Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao. (Photo: Eleanor Farmer/Oxfam)
A rural health unit in Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao. (Photo: Eleanor Farmer/Oxfam)

As we usher in a new world, we must choose what to bring and what not. Using Sarah Longwe’s women empowerment framework, there are five basic aspects of empowerment: welfare, access, conscientization, participation, and control.


Let’s visualize these five levels of empowerment with our hands. First is our pinky finger (hinliliit) to represent our welfare concerns. In the Philippines, we have a saying that what pains the little part of our body can pain the entire body. The same can be said for all things that seem to be basic but disregarded in so many ways – food, shelter, health, jobs. During this pandemic, the response has been focused on health and the prevention of infection. Still, various surveys have already pointed out that people are more afraid of starving than getting infected.

As our farmer-leader from Davao Oriental, Nanay Conching Masin, said: “I’m 72 years old. Don’t tell me not to go out and sell my produce, sell my vegetables. It is my right to feed my family.” This shows how inadequate the response was to people’s basic rights to survive. She did not receive any funds from the government’s Social Amelioration Program (SAP) fund because her husband receives a monthly pension of 3,000 pesos – but this is not even enough for his medicines alone.


So, rural women’s barriers to improving their income and livelihood have much to do with the ring finger (palasingsingan), which represents access. What resources do we need in these trying times? Social protection is not just about surviving but also surviving with dignity. Unfortunately, the Magna Carta of Workers in the Informal Economy (MCWIE) has not been pushed until now. It could have helped guide the targeting of beneficiaries in this time of the pandemic, or at least provide the social protection ‘floor.’

One of our leaders, Bae Edwinda Sarmiento, a Manobo leader from Lanao del Sur, says that for the past two years, they have been waiting for the Modified Conditional Cash Transfer for Indigenous Peoples They have been on the list for two years , but have not received it yet. But since they are listed, they did not receive the SAP. So, this is one clear case of exclusion that we do not hear about here in the urban centers. These are the narratives of exclusion that do not enter mainstream conversations on ayuda (aid).


We need to raise our awareness on issues that bring us to the middle finger, which towers over all others. For us to usher into the better normal, we need to have a more critical understanding of things through conscientization. We need to transform, especially those things which are invisible. A good example is unpaid care work.

Oxfam participated in the Rapid Gender Analysis. PKKK was also involved in collating the data, where we were able to make visible how unpaid care work increased during this pandemic. Before the pandemic, women were already working six hours more each day than men on care work. This has further increased. But the good news is there is evidence of more shared care work between men and women now. It is only when we recognize how care work is unevenly apportioned that we can act to reduce and redistribute care work. Let’s represent care work in all discussions. For me, this is a good conscientization exercise. Imagine if we can do the same on other silent or silenced issues.

What are these silent or silenced issues? Women are dying of unsafe abortions every day. We want to talk about life-saving strategies, then let’s talk about the causes of death. In 2012, data showed 600,000 women and girls died of unsafe abortion. I’m teary-eyed about this data. What does it mean? Three women dying every day. Eleven women are hospitalized every hour. Seventy women are inducing abortions every hour. And why did they have to access abortion anyway? The same data set showed that 75 percent is due to poverty; 40 percent, due to pregnancies at a young age; 13 percent, due to gender-based violence. We must be alarmed by the silent pandemic of gender-based violence. Rape cases have increased. In PKKK areas alone, we had eight cases of incest rape, and these were repeated rape that was exposed during the COVID lockdown conditions because during the lockdown, those who perpetuated the rape were easily caught. And these are life-saving issues that we need to challenge, and we need to transform because this would require transforming the structural causes of poverty and patriarchy.


Fourth, our index finger (hintuturo) representing participation. And here we talk about the direction of the better normal. Shouldn’t we be involved in pointing where to go?

Yesterday, Eliza Castro, our woman leader from Salcedo, Samar said that they were able to participate in and contribute substantially to the full security planning workshop at the municipal level. We should pursue this. We should institutionalize this for rural women who are often excluded in the registry system and lists of farmers and fishers. We need to assert our participation in the local governance spaces.


Fifth, and the last, is our thumb (hinlalaki) to represent control. Even if we have access to welfare services and social protection, even if we can voice out our opinions, in the end, we may still find ourselves not having any control over these. Then nothing – nothing – would have been transformed. And this would be like many things would have happened, but nothing would have changed. We would have participated in the food security planning and workshop, only to find later that macroeconomic policy such as the Rice Tariffication Law removes that control over food security.

This is the case of the Indigenous women in Ampatuan, Mindanao. The Rice Tariffication Law resulted in an 80 billion loss for the small farms, for the sector. Data shows a decrease in the wholesale price of rice. But this did not translate to reduced retail price. So, in short, our consumers are also not benefitting from it. Our rural women feel that the same scenario will happen in this pandemic. We have to establish its link with the neoliberal policies entrenched until now. Our tools should give control to the people, and that tool should subscribe to the food sovereignty principle. And sadly, the rice liberalization is failing to do so.

I have run out of fingers. Let these principles guide us as we reflect on a ‘better normal’ for us all.

Daryl Leyesa is a project coordinator of the National Rural Women Coalition, a women’s right organization with 326 rural women organizations in 32 provinces. Leyesa shared her reflections during the webinar organized by Oxfam Pilipinas entitled “A Better Normal: Civil society reflections on COVID-19” as the Philippines was experiencing an upsurge in COVID-19 cases in September 2020.