Members of the Malaysian National Advisory for Women (MNACFW) visited Manila on a three-day working visit from 25-28 July 2007. Some us who were invited to join a forum to share experiences on the advocacy for women's rights and equality were from feminist organizations also engaged in providing services for women.
Interestingly enough, the visiting delegation which, while connected with the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development were not all government officials but rather, much like us, were either from women's NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), grassroots activists, lawyer advocates or academics.
The issue of service provision, particularly in the context of intimate partner abuse and reproductive health, often came up as a common point of interest. Elsewhere I have mentioned that in the Philippines, Malaysia's state provided primary health care program sets an enviable standard, with a priority of free treatment for HIV-positive people.
On the other hand, what also often came up in the discussion as a seemingly impressive feat by the Filipino women's movement and other broad social movements, is the sheer number of laws passed for women — from violence against women (in the context of intimate relationships), to an anti-trafficking law, an anti-sexual harassment law and amendments to the rape law, to mention a few.
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However, Sally Ujano of the Women's Crisis Center in Manila clarified that the Reproductive Health Care policy is proving to be the single most difficult bill to pass. She stressed that the lack of health care for women, in addition to the country's stringent laws against all types of abortion, contribute to worsening conditions for women.
Meanwhile attorney Claire Luczon, Executive Director of Womenlead Foundation, Inc. and Irish Aguilar, staff lawyer of SALIGAN, shared that a key component in their organizational programs is the provision of legal services for women. Having successfully passed the Anti-Violence Against Women and their Children Act (VAWC) in 2004, cases filed by women against abusive partners and spouses are becoming staples in their legal practice.
Yet, legal services (in the context of individual cases filed by women), while ultimately considered a practical necessity, offer little else apart from remedies "after the fact" of abuse.
The Pan American Organization, a regional office of the World Health Organization notes that :
Gender-Based Violence (GBV) is one of the most widespread human rights abuses and public health problems in the world today, affecting as many as one out of every three women. It is also an extreme manifestation of gender inequity, targeting women and girls because of their subordinate social status in society.
Indeed, a common strategy for many feminist advocacy organizations (Manila and Kuala Lumpur included) has been to devote programs and projects to training and education about women's human rights. Professor Aurora Javate de Dios, Executive Director of Women and Gender Institute (WAGI), who hosted the forum, outlined many such efforts and initiatives around women's human rights training by WAGI and Miriam College. Prof. De Dios points out that:
Compounding the difficulty in recognizing women's human rights are claims to cultural practices which are used as justification for restricting or denying women's rights.
–The Continuing Struggle for Women's Human Rights and Empowerment, paper for the 8th International Institute on Women's Human Rights
In so saying, the quest for women's empowerment, getting women to "claim" rights, begins with the simple step of learning about what those rights are.
Luczon recalled that in an orientation they conducted on women's human rights and gender, a community of rural women cited in a post-training focus group that of the many concepts they heard about in the orientation, the most memorable one was that in the local parlance, women like themselves were used to referring to the act of sex with their partners as "pag-gamit," or literally, the act of "using."
Pointing out that these women kept on referring to sex as "being used" by their partners, was the most resounding wake up call they had heard. In realizing how their sex lives were "ordered," these women also realized how their marriages and partnerships were structured. To them, this had a profound impact on their sense of self and their awareness of having rights.
Indeed, as much as institutions such as church, state and media are often the most difficult to engage in the struggle for women's rights and equality, advocates everywhere are realizing that bringing home "rights" to the realm of everyday relations also constitutes just as tough a challenge.