Let Women’s Voices Be Heard

— Jeanette Heinrichs

ON MARCH 8, 2003, the International Women’s Day caravan left the offices of GABRIELA – the self-described militant women’s alliance of the Philippines. We sailed through the streets of Quezon City, a long trailer draped in purple – the signature color of GABRIELA – and many jeepneys, decorated with fluttering lavender GABRIELA flags.

Several GABRIELA members, including the singing group Sining Lila (purple culture), who were dressed in black blouses and tie-dyed pants of various colors, sat on stage while their recorded music blared from the huge speakers on either side of the stage.

Onlookers from the street stood on the sidewalk watching us as we passed, the mellifluous harmonies of Sining Lila filling the air, overpowering the city sounds of cars. They sang, “For each one of us, to seek our own quest, let our voices, our songs be heard.”

We were bound for our International Women’s Day celebration at the Katipunan Memorial Shrine in Manila – which honors Andres Bonifacio and the secret organization that engaged in armed struggle against the Spanish colonizers during the 1890s.

The bourgeois Emilio Aguinaldo coopted the Revolution and framed Bonifacio for execution. Aguinaldo ended up cooperating with and being duped by the U.S. government, which led to U.S. colonial and neo-colonial rule. Thus many believe Bonifacio’s revolution is still unfinished.

When the United States became the next colonizers they essentially left the Spanish feudal social system intact, and allowed the elite to govern the masses as they governed the elite. In the context of this relationship between colonizers and the native elite, GABRIELA belongs to the combined struggle against class and imperial oppression.

The theme of this year’s celebration of International Women’s Day – one of many held today – is “Kabuhayan, Hindi Gyera” (“Livelihood, Not War”) and is meant to underscore the ever deepening economic crisis facing the Philippines today. One woman leader reminded the crowd of the history of International Women’s Day, that it was a holiday to commemorate women’s role in the international class struggle.

Many women’s and mixed organizations attended this multi-sectoral rally, including the Third World Women Network Against the Exploitation of Women, Courage (government workers), GABRIELA National Capital Region, GABRIELA Network of Professionals, Health Alliance for Democracy, Children for Peace Alliance, Migrante International (migrant workers), KMU-IBM (workers), KMU Women, Nanay Watch (mothers), Anakbayan (student movement), Kadimay (urban poor), Children’s Rehabilitation Center, Lola Campaneras and Lila Pilipina (both are former Filipina comfort women during World War II), First Quarter Storm Movement, the Public Teachers’ Association, the Pasig Peace Committee, the Filipino Muslim Chamber of Commerce, SAMAKANA (urban poor women), Isis International (feminist resource center), CONTEND-UP (Congress of Teachers and Educators for Nationalism and Democracy – University of the Philippines), and All UP Workers (UP workers’ union).

Against the U.S. War

The celebration theme focused on entreating President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo from involving the Philippines in the U.S. war against Iraq.

The current administration’s overzealous compliance fits into a long history of puppet presidencies. She recently offered the use of Philippine airspace and its naval and air bases for refueling without being asked, or asking for payment.

During the afternoon program, the participants engaged in street theater to illustrate the relationship of the United States and Philippine governments.

In one corner of the stage, sitting on one of the huge speakers, a man appeared wearing a dark suit and the head of George Bush. Sitting on his knee was a puppet of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA). As her mouth moved, his recorded words came out.

Then GABRIELA members brought out a huge mural of the American presidential seal, with George Bush over an eagle holding missiles in the foreground, and the Philippine presidential seal in the foreground center – with GMA’s face on the body of a puppy, looking up expectantly for a pat on the head.

Members of GABRIELA and other member groups then started beating on this mural, and it split into two pieces. The message: the Philippine people must break this alliance between Bush and GMA because it is seriously damaging the sovereignty of the country.

Impact on the Philippines

GABRIELA has been a staunch critic of the war – helping launch the broad women’s anti-war coalition, www.peace (women for world wide peace) – which has not only killed many Iraqis but also has serious effects on Filipinos.

Currently there are 1.4 million overseas Filipino workers, 65% of whom are women. Also, the war is driving up the prices of basic commodities for an already impoverished people. At the rally, many groups were concerned that the U.S. will make the civil war in Mindanao as the second front on the War on Terrorism.

A representative from the Task Force on Political Detainees who was a part of a Mindanao fact-finding mission discussed the heavy militarization in the area. The militarization was creating huge numbers of internal refugees whom the neighboring areas were finding difficult to absorb.

The internal refugees from violent military clashes in Pikit, South Cotabato numbered 100,103. The mission also found that the most heavily militarized area was Liguasan Basin. Many rumors swirl around the Liguasan Basin, mainly that it is supposed to be very rich in natural gas and oil deposits.

A recent article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer confirmed this and added that the people who live there say it is the economic crisis and military repression that fuels the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) insurgency, but that the rich natural resources of the area could help bring prosperity and peace.

The people even suggest that the area could be made into the breadbasket of Mindanao – because the rich minerals in the soil have made it possible for farmers to harvest bumper crops without the use of pesticides or fertilizers.

The mission concluded that the main reason for war on Mindanao was to gain control of these rich natural resources. The citizens told them that they had no problems with the MILF, only with the soldiers. Nor could the mission find terrorists in the Basin – the ostensible rationale for the military buildup.


Because of his antiwar stance, Mayor of Manila Lito Atienza was invited to speak. He said, “This is not our war so let’s keep out of it.”

While Atienza said things like “we don’t like violence, and we don’t like war,” he also used an anti-imperialist stance to reinforce sexist ideas about Filipina women. “We don’t have to follow the Western culture where women are on par with men, because women are above men in the Philippines.”

Atienza also used an anti-imperialist stance to attack birth control. He argued that the Western imposition of birth control and even tetanus vaccines (rumored to cause sterility) were an imperialist plot to control the number of Filipinos.

These sexist comments were criticized by many of the following speakers. A Women’s Studies professor commented to me that Atienza was perpetuating a harmful feudalistic myth that Filipina women are put on a pedestal.

The Sex Slave Trade

Many of the women leaders discussed important issues such as landlessness among the peasants, no job security, increased militarization particularly in the countryside, and a rise of internal migrants who migrate to the city for greater opportunities.

The greatest number of internal migrants come from Region A – Samar and Leyte – where 90% of the people are fisherfolk and peasants. Once they arrive in Manila, they are greeted with poverty, repression, and homelessness. Most women become laundrywomen, saleswomen, domestics, and some fall victim to traffickers promising jobs overseas.

Once women immigrate they are told they owe tens of thousands of dollars, have their papers taken away, and are forced into prostitution. Even women who know they will be working in the commercial sex industry are enslaved by debt bondage and face inhumane living conditions.

Currently, the increase of sex trafficking cases to serve U.S. military bases in South Korea was one factor leading several members of the Philippine Congress to propose the new Anti-Trafficking Bill of 2002. GABRIELA, with other women’s organizations, has been lobbying for the bill, which is being debated in the Senate.

Shoe Mart Struggle

Also, the women lucky enough to be regular workers are finding that their jobs are being converted to short-term contract jobs under the Herrara Bill. “Contractualization” – the conversion of regular workers to short-term contracts workers – is impacting all sectors of workers in the Philippines.

The huge department store chain, Shoe Mart, favors hiring primarily monthly contract workers. Currently, GABRIELA is supporting the nationwide strike of Shoe Mart (SM) workers, who are mostly women. Over a period of three years, the union wants an increase of P215 ($3.98) while the management wanted to increase their salaries by only P39 ($.72) over five years.

Of 11,000 workers hired monthly, 7,000 are dismissed. Contractual workers make P250 + 30 ($5.17). One worker with twenty-one years’ seniority makes P356 ($6.59). SM’s net profits, reported March 2002, were P2.2 billion dollars. The owner, Henry Sy, is the third richest man in Asia.

SM’s union organizers hope that strong multi-sectoral support which aided in successful past strikes will help. Even the lolas (grandmothers) of Lila Pilipina, the organization of former Filipina comfort women, are joining the picket line in support of the strikers.

Veterans of the Underground

During the rally, I had asked members of GABRIELA if MAKIBAKA still existed. Historically, the second wave of Philippine feminism started with the creation of MAKIBAKA, a revolutionary women’s organization, in 1971 by Maria Lorena Barros, a young anthropology graduate student at the University of the Philippines.

When President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1973, organizations like MAKIBAKA were forced to go underground.

As we marched towards Mendiola for the afternoon rally, my friends from GABRIELA told me, “Look over there. You’ll find the answer to your question about MAKIBAKA.”

I turned to see a banner hanging off a bridge – MAKIBAKA expressing support for us. MAKIBAKA was still underground and mostly operated in the countryside, organizing peasant women. MAKIBAKA could not openly join our rally, but they were still very much with us in spirit.

Shortly after the afternoon program started, it started to rain. That did not stop the woman leader from Migrante International who bravely persisted with her speech, outlining the situation of Filipina migrant workers around the world, while the rain poured, drenching her and everyone else on stage.

Migrante has been advocating for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), including a campaign to win compensation for the Filipino migrant workers who were trapped in the Middle East during the Persian Gulf War.

The Middle East is the top destination for OFWs. Even as war rages in Iraq, more than four hundred OFWs leave for the Middle East a day. Some refuse to return and would rather risk war in the Middle East than starvation at home.

During the rally, most people opened their umbrellas – generally carried as a protection from the sun – or moved under the shelter of the nearby light rail platform. By the time the program adjourned, the sun peeked from behind the clouds, and the day was bright and vivid again.

This International Women’s Day underscores the fact that women are vital agents of collective social change. Also, while GABRIELA participates in international women’s solidarity networks, it primarily focuses on the impact of global and national inequality and strong national alliances, whereas much international feminist discourse characterizes the nation as only a site of oppression and just esteems transnational alliances.

To sum up, I will quote the words of one GABRIELA member. “We’re not just women – we’re also Filipinos.” She adds, “It’s difficult to be free (as women) when your country is not free.”

ATC 104, May–June 2003