habang di ako maka-decide kung alin ang uunahin kong alipustahin – gma’s damnable refusal to scrap VAT or the bishops’ criminal campaign to stop the reproductive health and population bills in congress – heto muna ang isang komentaryong lumabas today sa inquirer na, tiyak, hindi na lang babasahin ng mga obispo.
THE MISSING VOICES OF POOR WOMEN
By Mary Racelis
In the increasingly shrill debate over reproductive health, the voices of poor Filipino women, those most affected by the problem, remain eerily missing. Why this silence?
A study done in 2000 by a Filipino and international research team found that thousands of Filipino women are in effect “practicing family planning” through induced abortion. Shrouded in secrecy, it is their method of preventing the birth of another child.
NGO community organizers report that women friends in Metro Manila’s informal settlements have related intensely disturbing accounts of abortion as the poor woman’s answer to population control. Barely able to feed, clothe and educate four or five young children, and worried about the older ones already living on the streets, a woman who learns that she is pregnant with her fourth or fifth child is likely to abort it. Effective family planning solutions not having been available to her, she sees no other solution.
Urban poor women reported graphically in 2003 that if they had P1,000, they could seek out an abortionist in Pasay City, who might have a minimally sanitary clinic and some kind of medical training. If a woman had only P500, she could go to a “hilot” [native healer-midwife], who would give her a herbal drink “to regulate her menstruation” and massage her abdomen until blood (and the fetus) is expelled. A woman who had no money might jump off a high wall or run up several flights of stairs. Failing that, she might insert a hanger or barbecue stick into her birth canal.
Of the 473,400 Filipino women per year estimated in 2000 to have undergone an abortion (about equally divided between induced and spontaneous), statistics from 1,658 hospitals revealed that 105,000 women wound up in hospital beds from complications, mainly hemorrhaging and infections. An estimated 12 percent, or 12,600, died. How many more never made it to a hospital but met the same fate, or continue to suffer lifelong disabilities, is anyone’s guess. Research on the subject is taboo in official Catholic circles and viciously attacked by militant “pro-life” groups. The conspiracy of silence triumphs again.
Although abortion is linked in the public mind to panicky, unmarried pregnant young women, it is actually married women with children who form the vast majority of those seeking it. At the Second National Rural Congress last July 7 and 8 in Makati City sponsored by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, peasant women and grassroots NGO participants in the Women’s Sector session (at which I was also present) discussed this issue animatedly.
When one middle-upper-class lay Catholic woman official vehemently disputed the national abortion statistics and denied the frequency of the practice, one by one the grassroots women stood up and countered her assertions, replying respectfully but firmly that abortion was indeed occurring in their parishes. “Totoo po iyon. Iyon po ang ginagawa ng mga babae sa amin kapag ayaw na nilang magkaanak” [It’s true. That’s what women do in our place when they don’t want to have any more babies”], she said.
When the lay official dismissed their observations as anecdotal and not statistical enough to be representative of the populace, another rural participant queried, “Sino ba namang babae, Ma’am, ang magpapalista na nagpa-aborsyon siya?” [“Ma’am, what woman in her right mind would report that she had an abortion?”]
Finally, one parish worker appealed to the six bishops present, “Ano pong masasabi namin sa kanila kapag naghahanap sila ng payo sa amin, kung talagang hindi na puwede sa kanila na mabuntis?” [“What do we tell women seeking our advice if they really don’t want to go through another pregnancy?”] She did not get an answer.
Ironically, poor women rarely have access even to the natural family planning (NFP) methods espoused by both the Catholic Church and the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Despite pioneering pilot projects by Catholic NFP teams in Payatas, Quezon City and Ipil in Mindanao showing promising results, these efforts remain marginalized, even stigmatized, in apathetic Church and government circles.
The conspiracy of silence among Catholics becomes even more appalling because the Church of the Poor exhorts us to “listen to the voices of the poor.” Although the face of poverty in the Philippines is clearly that of a woman, are Church leaders listening to the voices of poor women? Is the Church of Poor Women enabling women to speak without condemnation about the fear of having another child she knows she cannot properly care for-and helping her do something about it? Is the Church of Poor Men teaching Filipino males that marital rights do not include forced sex-and eventually another child-anytime they feel like it? Will both Church and government offer the meaningful and practical family planning solutions poor women and men seek?
The acrimonious debate on population and reproductive health has for decades argued over issues like the ratio between people and resources, or the number of Filipinos who can be accommodated on our land area, or asset redistribution rather than birth control as the answer to rapid population growth. But where in all this are the voices of poor women? Even if they courageously break the culture of silence and speak out from their own vantage point, who among the powerful will listen? Will bishops, priests, nuns and Catholic lay leaders listen? Will government officials? Will the President?
It is time to end this conspiracy of silence and empower poor Filipino women to organize and speak out in their own interests-truthfully and forcefully. They, too, let us remember, are Catholics and Filipinos.