Christina K. Valte
The Philippine Women's Movement: In Search of a Feminist Identity

Corazon Aquino's assumption to the Presidency in 1986 was heralded by many as the dawning of a new age for the Filipino woman. For the first time in the country's history, a member of the female sex had taken hold of the reigns of political power. That this took place in a society heavily laced with machismo, makes the achievement noteworthy. That the road to power meant riding on the crest of popular insurrection and overthrowing a dictator, makes it unforgettable.

It is precisely the drama surrounding Aquino's rise to the highest office in the land that further perpetuated the false consciousness that women command respect and enjoy considerable status in society. It was as though the Aquino presidency marked the zenith of women's empowerment in the Philippines. Any discussion of women's participation in the struggle for democratic change in the Third World will have to be placed within the context of a class-divided society on the one hand, and the existence of a broad popular movement that is significantly differentiated along ideological lines, on the other. It is in relation with existing ideological forces that the issue of an autonomous women's movement must be discussed.

In attempting to share the experiences of Filipino women, the scope of this paper will be divided into three parts: 1) a summary of the women's situation; 2) an overview of the history of women's struggle from the 1920's to the 1970's; 3) the role of non-government organizations and external funding in strengthening women's advocacy; and 4) the limits and possibilities of a feminist women's movement in the Philippines.

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Situationer: A Critical Re-examination of a Myth

Women in the Philippines suffer the same burdens that their sisters from other parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America endure. Be it on the issue of economic marginalization, subordination, multiple burden, gender stereotyping or violence, the Filipino woman is not spared from the pains of discrimination against, and exploitation of her person.

Yet, the belief that women occupy a high place in society has been drummed in the minds of many generations of Filipinos. Women's access to educational opportunities, increased participation in the economic and political spheres, high visibility in various areas of socio-cultural life. All this has helped to create the myth that the Filipino woman has no need for a women's liberation movement as, indeed, she has already been liberated. This myth is strengthened by the conventional view that, as the holder of the purse strings, the woman exercises unchallenged dominion over the household. Such a condition supposedly makes her assume a position equal in importance to that of the husband, as is echoed in the Filipino maxim: "the mother is the light of the home" (while "the father is the pillar of the family"). The Filipino wife is presumed to be a pampered one - all she needs to do is manage the hearth while the husband sweats it out in search of food and other means of sustenance for the family.

To shatter this myth about women's equality in the Philippines, one only has to look at certain facts. As of October 1991, we find that there are about 12.9 m. women comprising 47% of the estimated 27.64 m. - strong total labourforce in the Philippines. (Not accounted for in this figure is the over one million-strong Filipina overseas contract workers, who earn their keep as domestic helpers and entertainers in the Middle East and in industrialized countries like Japan, Germany, Italy etc. As it is, sex-based salary differentiation negates the significant contribution of women in the economy.

Research conducted in March by the Department of Labour and Employment's Institute of Labour Studies reveals that, generally, women workers earn only about PhP 0.37 (US$ 0.01) for every peso (US$ 0.04) that the men earn. The salary gap widens as the position reaches the executive and managerial levels, where women receive only PhP 0.15 (US$ 166.44). On the other hand, rank-and-file women in large companies receive a monthly average of PhP 4,256 (US$ 170.24) while their male colleagues gain PhP 5.939 (US$ 237.56) on the average. (Jiminez-David, 1992).

Even as Filipino women in the formal sector are shortchanged income-wise as a result of sex-based discrimination, their sisters in the countryside are in an even worse position. Peasant women have always functioned as invisible laborers, their work in the fields seen only as an extension of their housework and therefore without commensurate value, monetary or otherwise. But even where financial compensation is present, the female agricultural worker receives only PhP 0.09 (US$ 0.003) for every peso gained by the male.

If the Filipina is marginalized economically, so is she relegated when it comes to the political life of the nation. The table below shows the comparative standing of women in the area of formal political representation, under the Aquino administration and the present Ramos dispensation (see table on page 50).

In evaluating formal political representation of women in the Philippines, it is important to note that the majority of those who are able to assume leadership positions come from the upper class, and belong to existing political clans whether by consanguinity or by affinity. For instance, the four women senators serving under the Ramos government all come from economically and/or politically powerful families.

As for the participation in electoral processes, statistics from the Commission on Elections show that in 18 out of 22 elections held from 1947 to 1988, women have had a consistently higher voting turnout, compared to the men. The average rate of women voters is 79.29%, which is higher by 55 percentage points than the average turnout rate of their male counterparts. As a recent study noted, the figures on voter turnout tends to suggest that the higher degree of participation rate of women in elections is due to the fact that "voting is the only mode of formal participation open to all Filipino women" and that the electoral candidacy is "reserved for privileged women" (Tancangco, 1991:339).


In terms of legislation under the Aquino administration, only one per cent of all laws enacted directly address women's issues. A sample of these women-oriented laws and their limitations are as follows:

- Women in Development and Nation-building Act - commands government agencies to set aside a substantial portion of overseas development aid for women-oriented projects, and to encourage women's participation in all of the agencies' activities. Unfortunately, this law carries no sanction in case of non-compliance.

- Anti-Discrimination-Act-penalizes sex-based discrimination in pay, promotion and training. However, the law is silent on the wage differentials between so-called "masculine" and "feminine" types of jobs (e.g. between female sewers and male cutters in a garments factory). The law is also not able to address discrimination in hiring.

- Social Security for Reproductive Work - entitles spouses devoting full time to housework and children rearing to social security coverage (if they want to). But the housewives are still dependent on their husbands since the law mandates that contributions will be deducted from the salary of the spouse who works outside the home, and only with his consent. (Dionisio, 1992).

On the issue of violence, a 1990 study conducted by Lihok Pilipina (an NGO based in the Visayas and Mindanao) on wife-beating in one province alone showed that, based on police reports and hospital records, six out of ten wives are beaten up by their husbands every day. Data on domestic violence is difficult to obtain as the issue is considered a private one. Much remains to be done in this area, not only in terms of research but of advocacy as well. At this point, the woman has no legal recourse in the event that she is victimized domestically.

On a social scale, the extreme poverty besetting the majority of Philippine society has inflicted the most severe and violent effect on women. At home and abroad, hundreds of thousands of Filipinas have turned to prostitution as a means of survival. In Japan alone, there are around 90,000 Filipino women working as entertainers. Here in Germany, many Filipinas victimized by sex-trafficking -- whether through illegal recruitment or the mail-order bride system -- have ended up as prostitutes, illegal at that. Elsewhere, stories of woe regarding Filipino women working overseas abound. Last year's Gulf War, for instance, was made all the more unforgettable because of the many instances of Filipina overseas workers being kidnapped and raped by Kuwaiti soldiers.

All these are enough to debunk the myth that the Filipino women are on a par with men in their society. But given these realities, how have women taken part in the struggle for democratic change in their country?

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The Women's Movement: Conception and Infancy

As one study of the history of the Philippine women's movement notes, the participation of women in political struggles may be classified into three waves (Angeles, 1988). The first wave began in the colonial period, during which Filipino women actively involved themselves in anti-colonial resistance. Many of them led small armies of combatants, even though official history relegates these women revolutionaries to having performed traditional roles within the liberation movement (Tancangco, 1991:325). Under the Americans, upper and middle class women sought to imitate their sisters in the United States by launching a Philippine version of the suffragette movement in the 1900's. The efforts of various women's groups during this period bore fruit with the eventual granting of women's suffrage rights via the 1937 plebiscite.

However, the suffrage movement, while a considerable stepping stone in raising the issue of women's exclusion from political processes in the colony, did not raise other concerns besides the women's right to vote. Neither did it advocate issues related to class politics. Led as it was by women of the bourgeoisie, the movement reflected the aspirations of the upper and middle classes, thereby divorcing itself from the lives of the majority of poor women who viewed the right to vote as worthless in an elitist and foreign-controlled political system (Angeles, 1988:28).

The class nature of women's involvement in political change took a different turn during the interregnum brought about by the Japanese occupation. Here, women from the lower classes joined the armed resistance even as their privileged sisters sought refuge in the United States and elsewhere, away from the ruin and severity caused by war. This situation turned out to be brief, however, as the postwar period saw the retreat of these lower class women to their domestic chores, and the re-emergence of upper and middle class women in the political scene. These women devoted these energies to social work, fund-raising and moral regeneration campaigns. Many of the groups established during this period were meant to be female counterparts of men's organizations, thereby performing mere auxiliary functions (Tancangco, 1991:326).

The rise of radicalism in the late 1960's spawned a vibrant student movement that not only spearheaded the revival of the national struggle against American intervention, but likewise sought to present a vision of an alternative society that would be the end-goal of the struggle for democratic change. It is from the ranks of these student intellectuals and radicals that MAKIBAKA (to struggle), or the Free Association of New Women, was born. Launched in 1970, MAKIBAKA was the first women's association that attempted to situate women's liberation within the context of the struggle against foreign domination and class oppression. Thus, the birth of MAKIBAKA marked the second wave of the women's movement, this time integrating the issue of gender into the larger issues of class oppression and imperialism. (Angeles, 1988:33).

However, it is this very attempt at combining feminist and class politics that stunted MAKIBAKA's chances of helping establish an autonomous women's movement. On the one hand, organizational priorities and rebukes from male comrades who saw the woman question as trivial given the demands of the times, and ideological blinders that resulted from an uncritical adherence to orthodox Marxism. On the other hand, it reduced MAKIBAKA to a self-professed feminist organization that failed to look beyond politics as a source of gender oppression.

Martial law, ironically, turned out to be favorable for women's organising in the 70's, as the immense degradation of the Filipina spurred campaigns against the trafficking of Filipino women overseas, the exploitation of women workers in export processing zones, cases of torture and rape of women political detainees, and the like. However, even as the women's groups began to take an increasingly feminist character, the nature of women's participation in the anti-dictatorship struggle was such that, the different ideological forces comprising the Philippine Left -- national democrats, social democrats, socialists -- viewed the integration of women in the democratic struggle only in relation to the need for augmenting their respective mobilizable forces, without assigning "central significance" to the role of gender liberation in the struggle for national and social transformation. In other words, the women's movement was seen as a mere appendage of the larger national struggle.

By the start of the 1980's, however, one significant development that challenged the dominant thinking of mainstream political formations regarding the women's movement, was the setting up of PILIPINA (Movement of Filipino Women). An organization that had a clear socialist feminist orientation, PILIPINA was composed of individuals belonging to the social democratic and social camps, some of them even holding important positions within their respective ideological blocs. Yet, these women ensured that PILIPINA would remain politically and organizationally autonomous from the political forces that each belonged to.

Towards the twilight of the Marcos dictatorship and specifically after the assassination of former Senator Benigno Aquino in 1983, women's groups of various political persuasions and class composition re-emerged and shared the political center stage with other anti-Marcos organizations. Many of these women's groups, coming as they were from a wide array of groups -- from the politically and ideologically inclined, to civic associations -- decided to band together in an umbrella organization that later became popularly known as GABRIELA (General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership and Action). The coalition, set up in 1984, was the first attempt at unifying the women around a feminist agenda, even as political differences are recognized and yet disallowed to derail the effort towards the building of an autonomous women's movement.

Unfortunately, less than two years later, GABRIELA split over the issue of participation in the 1986 snap presidential elections. After hurling charges and counter-charges of manipulation against each other, at least half of the women's organizations decided to leave until only those closely identified with the national democrats were left in GABRIELA. What was originally envisaged as a genuine coalition of forces of women, became reduced to simply another association of organizations influenced by a single ideological tendency. On the other hand many of the original member-organizations that left GABRIELA later formed the more politically diverse Women's Action Network for Development, or WAND. (In 1991, the paths of GABRIELA -- through the Group of 10 network -- and WAND would meet with the setting up of a funding mechanism called Development Initiatives for Women Alternatives and Transformative Action (DIWATA).

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Emergent Third Wave: The Making of a Feminist Women's Movement

The overthrow of Marcos resulted in many political activists deciding to set up non-governmental organizations or social development agencies as an extension of their commitment to democratic change, this time in the arena of development work. At the same time, the immense popularity of Corazon Aquino attracted huge amounts of foreign and local funding for development projects (Constantino-David, 1990:4). Women's groups benefitted largely from this.

On the one hand, many funding sources emphasized the inclusion of a Women-in-Development (WID) component in any development project. On the other hand, in 1987, on the initiative of the newly-installed government, over a hundred individuals came together from the academia, people's organizations and NGOs to collectively formulate the Philippine Development Plan for Women (PDPW). A companion volume of the 1987-1992 Medium Term Development Plan, the PDPW was a landmark document in that the Philippines became only the second country in the world that set out a comprehensive policy statement on the role of women in nation-building (Constantino-David, 1990).

Thus, these two major developments at the outset of the Aquino era unintentionally planted the seeds of what is turning out to be the third wave of the women's movement, one that is increasingly feminist in orientation.

This paper posits that, arguably, NGO's contributed much to the impetus that is currently propelling gender advocacy in the Philippines. While previously existing formations have not ceased in raising women's issues, it cannot be denied that women-oriented development projects have pushed to the surface other women's concerns that may not be directly political in nature but, nevertheless, are equally critical to the gender question: child care, livelihood development, campaign against domestic violence, etc.

Even the advocacy of feminist issues in traditionally chauvinist or ideologically - biased organizations like trade unions, peasant organizations and cooperative movements has been stimulated - to a certain extent - by the need to have a WID component. Since many of such organizations have partner NGO's that keep relations with funding agencies which place importance on women-oriented projects, women-specific projects inevitably assumed as much significance as traditional ones. Hence one will find a federation of women workers, for instance, which in the past simply subsumed gender issues under the larger cause of trade unionism but which is now incorporating a women's component in training and capability-building programs.

In addition, the tremendous popularity of gender advocacy in the developing world has encouraged the establishment of close working relations between women's groups that belong to different ideological forces and are otherwise divided over their respective political leanings. One such example, as has been noted above, is the coming together of WAND and the Group of Ten - where GABRIELA belongs as one of the ten member-organizations - in order to collectively manage development funds through a women-specific funding mechanism called DIWATA. Here, while political and ideological tensions inevitably remain, the two major networks of women's groups are afforded a venue for jointly pushing women's issues within their respective circles via the promotion of gender advocacy and innovative women-oriented projects. While there are other alliances of various women's NGO's and organizations, it may be said, that DIWATA is currently the de facto umbrella organization of women's groups in the Philippines, as it counts among its ranks "the majority of organizations and NGO's involved in the women's movement" (Tanada, 1991:3).

These observations regarding the role of external funding and NGOs are not meant to disparage the efforts of Filipino women in advancing the cause of gender equality. It is simply an attempt at recognizing the peculiar turn of development under the Aquino administration that further strengthened feminist advocacy in some organizations, and compelled others who had previously dismissed the women's question as trivial, to do the same.

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The Road Ahead

After all is said and done, what is more important about current developments in the Philppine women's movement is the fact that a clearly feminist orientation is emerging, even as the larger political and ideological questions are being tackled within and among the progressive sections of the women's movement. Even as the women wage internal battles within their respective political formations - in the hope that other comrades will finally recognize the "central significance" of gender liberation within the democratic struggle - these advocates are pursuing a determined effort at carving their own place within the democratic struggle. One proof of such steadfast commitment is the ability of women to meaningfully work together, despite existing problems across the ideological blocs to which they belong.

Much remains to be done. Large sections of women remain excluded from political processes, whether in formal institutions or otherwise. The feminist movement in the Philippines is relatively young. As it gains more experience - and hopefully mature in the process - it will eventually make a qualitative leap in advancing the women's question, even as the struggle for social transformation continues.

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