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_Davao City, Philippines November 27, 2005 | VOL. 1 ISSUE NO. 3
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The Women of Davao

The streets of Davao still seethe with the indignation of the thousands of Nenas, Lydas, Indays and Juanas who, decades before, had given birth to one of the country's most active and determined women's movement.

DAVAO CITY -- A boy who must have been around four years old clung tightly to the hand of a woman who was trying to keep herself and the child astride with the moving throng.

She was in her 50s and had the look of someone who should be at home, tending to her chores. But no -- Juana Aredondoa had been meaning and had been prepared to join the march that day. After all, she had done that in the '70s, when she was still much, much younger.

In the '70s, Juana said, the rallies were mainly about ousting a dictator, Marcos. But the recent report that a Filipina had been raped by American soldiers in Subic brought out the activist in her again, she said. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, she said, should be blamed for the plight of the Filipina "because the country is helplessly indebted to the United States."

So last week, oblivious to the hot midday sun, Juana gripped the hand of his grandchild and took to the streets. It was just right that she did that, she said, even if she had to bring her grandchild along, even if she had to spare a few pesos of her meager earnings from fish vending just so she could ride the jeepney from her house in Buhangin to downtown, where the marchers assembled.

If Juana braved the streets in the '70s, she must have crossed paths with activists from Makibaka (or the Makabayang Kilusan ng Bagong Kababaihan), a women's organization that was at the forefront of the struggle for women's rights in the 1970s and was forced to go underground when martial law was declared in 1972. Juana said she had, in fact, met two members of the group.

The Decade of Makibaka

Women liberation had already been spoken about in discussion groups in Davao City long before martial law, said Nena, a Makibaka member in the '70s, who spoke to davaotoday.com on condition of anonymity.

She got into the group while studying at a university in the Visayas. She transferred to the University of Mindanao here just when rumors of martial law were brewing.

"Very daring" was how Nena described young women in her time. "Martial law had already been declared then but we found ways to still get those flyers and leaflets handed to people on the streets," she said.

However, Nena's house in the city was raided by authorities, forcing her to move to other areas in the region where she continued her activism.

Nena said the struggle toward women liberation had gone a long way from what it was in the '70s. It was not only because women had made great strides in organizing work in the '80s, expanding into various women's organizations that were composed not just of women professionals but also peasants, workers, even Church workers.

The strength of the women's movement in Davao is evident not only in its success to overcome the challenges of the next decades, which could perhaps explain why this city has a longer list of women's organizations compared with other cities.

It was evident not only because women activists had gradually acquired greater participation in public decision making, as shown in the passage of the landmark legislation Women Development Code of 1997. Or that more women have occupied public offices.

Rather, Nena thinks that the great strides of the Davao women's movement has largely become nationalist in character and advocacies. The women's movement, she explained , was able to transcend its struggle, from gender oppression to the larger oppression of the country against imperialist powers and the ruling elite.

The streets of Davao certainly are no stranger to rallies nowadays. In fact, these streets have become historic in the sense that they were witnesses to the protests that have been staged here for nearly three decades, a testament to this city's vibrant political life.

It is on such days as Nov. 25 that landmarks such as the Freedom Park and Rizal Park are easily transformed from the languid rendezvous spots that they are on most days into a political stage where people's aspirations of revolutions are shared.

Women versus the Dictator

Lyda Canson is among the many activist leaders in Davao City today who had experienced the rigors of the birth of the women's movement here in the '80s. She described the struggle for women liberation in those times as "something borne of deep desire to oust a dictator."

The political backdrop that was the Marcos dictatorship awakened Filipino women into bonding together, to sit down, discuss women's conditions, and plan how they could change the conditions that they believed were bound to affect women the hardest.

It paved the way for women to develop methods in the battle against oppression. One very powerful tool was organization. "When you start to understand that women are this oppressed, you start to yearn that their voices be heard," Canson said. "And if these voices must be heard, a lone voice cannot certainly make this happen. And that is where the need to organize comes in."

Canson recalled how a group of women came together in 1982, undertook massive research on the status of women in Mindanao, and came up with what Canson called a battle plan. This gave birth to the Women's Alliance for True Change and was later expanded to cover the whole of Mindanao. Hence, Watch Mindanao.

Watch Mindanao, Canson said, became a precursor of the many things related to the work of organizing and mobilizing women. Strides after strides were in this area. Soon, women's organizations started participating in international conferences and assemblies.

Canson recalled that by the time the Assembly for the International Decade of Women, a gathering held in preparation for the United Nations Decade for Women convention in 1985 , was called, Watch Mindanao was able to send representatives from as far as Zamboanga del Sur, Agusan and Surigao Provinces and South Cotabato.

This bore many more fruits. The first regional chapter of the progressive organization of women Gabriela had its roots here. Those organized were not the professionals alone but also women workers, women peasants, and women from the urban poor. Soon, women organizing flourished in different sectors.

The campaigns were directed against the abuses committed by the military. Women also took to the streets against President Corazon Aquino who replaced the dictator and who, according to Canson, turned out to be anti-woman.

The women groups also denounced Aquino for her support of the continued stay of the U.S. military bases and the existence of vigilante death squads. In the end, the successful campaign against the bases was in large part due to women's participation, outraged as they were with abuses and injustices committed by U.S. troops against Filipino women, among other issues.

If the women movement in the '80s raged against the dictatorship and consequently flowered because women felt the need to bond together and fight the common enemy, the following decade proved much more daunting.

The Rigors of the '90s

In 1987, Inday Duterte was working as an assembler in a rope manufacturing company, Damintraco, in Bunawan District. When the company's employees went on strike, Inday was among the few women who dared to block the cargo trucks carrying the export products that the workers had labored on. It was to dramatize their protest against the unfair labor practices of the company.

Inday found herself living in the picket lines, regardless that she had a daughter that she was raising all by herself.

Inday Duterte

That experience, she said, prepared her for bigger and braver tasks ahead. Inday later became the secretary general of the organization Kilusang Mangggagawang Kababaihan (KMK), an organization of women workers here in the '80s.

Inday found herself engaging in deeper political educations to better understand the issues that confront the country, not just its women. Among the protests that Inday participated in and could not forget was the campaign against the U.S. bases, when Davao's women went out in droves and expressed their disgust over the continued presence of the bases. It was also during those times that Inday got invited by Gabriela, a proponent of the anti-bases struggle, into their activities.

Today, Inday is among the fulltime women activists who continue the struggle. The challenges, she said, are daunting. Organizing women in the communities, she said, have become doubly difficult these days as their primary concern is to put food on the table, giving them little time, if at all, to listen to leaders like Inday talk about women's issues.

But women activists continue to see the need to move on. Inday is not at all worried, she said, because "when women are in crisis, they fight."

The Battle Ahead

Juana's experience with women activism is a testament to the fact that, since the '70s, little has changed in the Philippines. While the image of the modern Filipina is one who is sophisticated and determined, many of the problems that her sector faced decades ago continue to persist.

More women are confronted with problems of sexual exploitation. They are forced to go out of the country and find work, even the most menial ones. Abroad, they are vulnerable to abuses and iniquities. But they endure.

Canson said much of the hardships and difficulties faced by Filipino women today can be traced to the same issues that first cropped up decades ago. "This is still the era of imperialist globalization and that the economic, political and social conditions that characterized the Philippine crisis in the '70s basically remained today," she said.

The march of the Filipino woman is definitely not over. (Cheryll Fiel/davaotoday.com)

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