By Raoul A. Bermejo III, MD, MPH
I dedicate this piece to my mother, the woman who taught me how to live and love.
Even in a country that takes beauty pageants very seriously, the recent first-runner up win in the Miss Universe of Filipino Janine Tugonon, a pharmacist, must take to the sidelines for a greater triumph for women –the passage in both houses of Congress of the Reproductive Health Bill. After 14 years of arduous and often divisive discussions in several sessions of congress, enough political will was finally mustered to surmount the strong and systematic opposition of the Catholic Church. The legislation affirms the reproductive health rights of women, and among others, mandates free access to family planning commodities and the teaching of sexuality education in schools.
There is much to celebrate for women these days in the Philippines but despite having had two female presidents, women continue to face challenges –old and new.
I was hiking over the weekend in the rice terraces up in the Philippine Cordilleras. In the village of Batad, I met Faith (not her real name). She has six children. With her husband in jail, she bears the burden of raising her family. On her own, she tends to her family´s terraces. She had to give up her newborn twins to an orphanage because it is impossible to work while taking care of them. She felt forced to have more children. In this upland farming village, more children means more hands to help in the farming.
With limited possibilities of employment at home, many Filipinos choose to work in other countries. An estimated 10 million (over 10 percent of the population) work abroad. Many are women. They are domestic helpers, care givers, and nurses. Filipino children are growing up without their mothers. The tragedy is that while these Filipino women are taking care of the children and the sick of the world, they cannot take care of their own.
These triumphs and continuing challenges of Filipino women resonate with the current global attention on the importance of women in development. The Lancet editors, in their the-world-we-want manifesto, identified women as one of the five priorities as we look to the future beyond 2015. Beyond health, attention must also be placed on women’s education and equal opportunities for employment and leadership.
While women continue to be the face of poverty globally, they are also becoming the faces of change, and of strong and fearless struggles for democracy. The resolute face of Neda, a fallen Iranian activist, ignited the world during the protests that followed the 2009 Iranian elections. There is the compelling story of Malala, a Pakistani girl who was shot for her articulate campaign for girls’ education. The enduring stand for democracy of Aung San Suu Kyi remains inspiring. Her recent calibrated cooperation with the military leaders in Myanmar has brought a spring of change to her once-isolated country.
As we reflect on the MDGs and look beyond 2015, it will be another historic omission if we do not squarely recognize women as an axis of development. They face real challenges yet they represent a force that can positively shape the world we want.