At War Over Her Body
The Catholic Church and the Davao City government are waging a fierce battle against each other over contraception. Women like Hazel Baraw get caught in the crossfire.
DAVAO CITY -- Life for Hazel Baraw, 28, hardly changed after she got married.
Before, she used to work as domestic helper, earning a measly 500 pesos a month doing the long, mindless, repetitive chores nobody wanted to do inside the house of a middle-class family in Buhangin.
When she married at 18, she thought she was finally giving herself a break.
But one by one, the four children came. Inside one of those huts people call the “carpenters’ bunkhouse” in a squalid corner of Buhangin’s Country Homes subdivision where her husband used to work, Hazel Baraw confronts the same long and repetitive work -- unpaid now -- she had left behind as a 14-year-old domestic help. Her husband’s pay was meager and irregular.
Looking very weak and emaciated now, Hazel Baraw is sick with worry over where to get her family’s next meal. With four small children to raise, she could hardly find work to supplement her husband’s income. Worse, she’s about to have another baby.
So when news about City Hall’s tubal-ligation program reached the carpenters’ bunkhouse, women like Hazel Baraw came to the open to avail themselves of the opportunity. "All I wanted to do was to take a rest, have the time to plan and think things over," she said.
But things are not as simple as they seem. Just the mere decision of what to do with her own body already brings her right in the middle of the war on contraception between the Catholic Church and the state.
Months after the city announced its 5,000-peso financial assistance (later reduced to 3,000 peso) for men and women who opt for vasectomy and tubal ligation, the Catholic Church’s Family Planning Crusade denounced the program, saying it is "contrary to the teachings of God," and it violates basic moral principles for the protection of human life.
Tubal ligation, which is done by cutting the woman’s fallopian tubes to prevent pregnancy, and vasectomy, or the cutting of the tube that carries the sperm, remain forbidden by the Catholic Church, which views the woman’s body solely as a “means for pro-creation,” Lyda Canson, chair of the Davao City chapter of the women’s group Gabriela.
The Catholic Church has also come up with its own program to encourage more people to remove their IUDs (intra-uterine devices), for free – directly countering a City Hall program providing IUDs to women.
"It’s a case of two institutions -- headed by men -- deciding on what to do with the woman’s body," Canson said. "Ironic because men do not have the capacity to become pregnant but they’re the ones making decisions affecting pregnancy."
But the story of how women -- not only the innocent and unsuspecting ones like Hazel Baraw -- lost their rightful claim over their bodies is a story as old as history itself, Canson added. It dates back to thousands of years when the advent of herding and the invention of private property first came up in the minds of men, she said.
In this country, what a girl will become is already dictated upon her even before
birth. To get what she wants, she has to overcome obstacles imposed on her by class, sex, race, religion and culture.
Since her parents were poor, Hazel Baraw was sent to her aunt to work as soon as she entered high school. Shortly after that, she was working for other people who had promised to send her to school. But the house chores assigned to her were so tedious and long (up to 10 o’clock at night) she could hardly take a rest. If Hazel Baraw had the chance to study (she went as far as second year high school), all the odds were against her to go very far.
While sending her mistress’s son to school, she met a guy working as a carpenter in the newly developed subdivision. A year later, she ended up living in the carpenter’s bunkhouse. Years later, she had four children to feed.
"Our culture always suggests that women are helpless and worthless without a man," said Canson. "In a Third World country like the Philippines, women are treated as a commodity: as a ‘body’ to sell products in advertisements and commercials, as a source of cheap labor for factories abroad and as consumer of goods like contraceptives.”
But Canson said the issue at stake in this controversy is not so much the family planning method per se but whether women were given a choice on what to do with their own bodies.
"The tubal ligation endorsed by the city government is controversial only when it’s promoted as an incentive," she said, referring to an international agreement on reproductive heath, which says that "women should not be intimidated, coerced, forced or bribed into adopting a particular planning method." She said coercion violates choice, as a woman’s right over her own body.
After Mayor Rodrigo Duterte announced on his TV program that he was giving out cash to women and men who would agree to undergo tubal ligation and vasectomy, city department heads were quick to correct that the 5,000 pesos (later reduced to 3,000 pesos) cash given out by the city were financial subsidies, not incentives, to the poorest of the poor.
But the Church believes otherwise. Artificial family planning method is an outright violation of life, said the Family Planning Crusade in a strongly worded statement.
Canson said the Church has so much to account for the prevailing patriarchal culture that perpetuates the subordination of women. In the mass media, a woman is regarded as a commodity for sale, someone who is weak and has to be saved by a man. Hence, the younger Hazel Baraw, unable to finish high school and desperate to start a new life, had turned to someone she thought would take her out from the life of servitude, but ended up not any better.
Canson said women who are poor ended up far worse. Some of them are forced into sex trafficking or prostitution.
Women are often left out in the argument between the Church and the State, where systemic structures have often rendered them weak and helpless. "Most often, in our culture, it’s the men who set the norm on how women and men should behave," said Canson, "and many of these standards set by men are double standards and oppressive to women."
In a series of seminars before her wedding, Hazel Baraw recalled being told by the priest never to take any contraceptives because it is a sin against God.
But life in the bunkhouse had been very hard that sometimes the family had to eat bananas or cassava for lunch. Sometimes, the children had to skip school.
Hazel Baraw knew that she had to stake a claim on her own body in order to survive. (Germelina Lacorte/davaotoday.com)