Recently, I have attended the Beijing+15 Asia Pacific NGO Forum held at the Miriam College here in the Philippines. It was my first time to participate to such an event, and my first time to meet women from different parts of the globe all united for the goal of achieving gender equality as enshrined in the Beijing protocol.
I participated as part of JASS SEA or Just Associates South East Asia, a cross-regional organization of feminists and human rights workers from different fields. Currently, it works in the Meso-America, South Africa and South East Asia regions.
Culture of oppression
The forum was held last October 22 to 24. When I came in the first day, it was Indian feminist Kamla Kamla who was talking through a video recording. The plenary was titled “Feminisms through Generations.”
“Patriarchy and capitalism is a dangerous combination,” these were the words Kamla uttered, who for a long time now have been working on the concerns of women in India.
Kamla mentioned that patriarchy along with the class structure and the existing caste system, bring about the marginalized state of women in India.
Summarizing the situation in her country, she identified the two root cause of the oppression— culture and religion. A similar story is shared by sisters from the Pacific region.
The panelist from Fiji, Claire Slatter, also identified culture as one of the biggest barrier to women in her country. She stated that Fiji women are subjected to oppressive systems that are reinforced by the law itself.
Tongan women shared the same concerns, as Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki shared how women’s rights activists are accused of breaking up families just because they are pushing for the rectification of CEDAW or the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women.
As their government stated, the CEDAW document was said to cut across the “Tongan” way of life. Ofa, cited how their country, with population of 100,000, have 6 homicide cases recorded. 4 of the said cases were domestic violence cases where the husbands killed their wives.
Fifteen years after the Beijing protocol and more than a hundred years after the historic March 8 protest, Tongan women can only lease and not own land. Women, who became widows, are also expected by the society to remain loyal to their dead husbands. Failure to do so can enable the court to issue a court order to take the widow off the land.
CEDAW, as Ofa shared is viewed as evil and against Christianity. With all the persecution faced by women rights activists in her country she bravely said, “I don’t feel comfortable, but I know I’m doing the right thing… [Women] have every right to stand up and speak out.”
Taking from history, Kamla explained how in the 1970s they were finding words and ways just to express how the family is the location of the worst form of patriarchy, discrimination and violence. She said “subjugation comes from the most intimate relationships.”
In communication theories, feminists have identified how the language is gendered. Feminist theory, as stated in the book Theories of Human Communication, “begins with the assumption that gender is a pervasive category of experience” (Littlejohn & Foss, p. 222).
Sadly however, gender, as a social construction, have been male dominated and is found to be oppressive to women. With this:
[feminist] theory aims to challenge the prevailing gender
assumptions of society and to achieve more liberating ways
for women and men to exist in the world (ibid., p. 222).
As the experiences of feminists have shown, the current system doesn’t have words to challenge patriarchy. Even the word husband, as sampled during the forum, means to domesticate.
With this, women advocates have come up with creative ways to propagate their cause. As they found out, music and songs are particularly effective forms of teaching.
Fifteen years after
Taking from all the experiences shared by the different women during the forum, I can’t help but to compare the same concerns and experiences in the Philippines.
Seeing parallelisms with the Philippine experience and the experiences of women from different countries, I can’t help but agree on the analysis mentioned by Kamla Bhasin. She said, “unless we fight neoliberal policies, I don’t see a future for gender equality.”
Recent statistics show that women compose 49% of the country’s population. Despite all the claims made that the gender gap in the country is lessened, the realities experienced by grassroots women tell otherwise.
Working with different organizations especially with women from the urban poor, youth and students among others have negated such claims of empowerment.
Seeing how women farmers are not considered as farmers but housewives still. How urban poor women have to work in contractual jobs and meager pay and still expected to tend to housework. How neoliberal policies in education have increased the number of out-of-school young women, not to mention the existence of sexual harassment and rape.
Yes, in this modern age the notion that a woman’s place is in the kitchen and the bedroom still lingers.
I have learned to recognize that there is indeed, double oppression on women not only due to gender but also class-based.
Women must realize that they must stand up and struggle for their own liberation. I have learned that the road to women’s emancipation is rough but through collective struggle along with the other sectors of society it can be achievable.
I am a young advocate for women’s rights. Yes, I may be a novice to some, though I know in my self that I am not less capable in fighting for gender equality.
I know that I am not alone, that there are others like me, young women, who replenish and continue this struggle. I remember how one speaker from Fiji said, as a challenge, that young women [should] not take their rights forgranted and that they should be vigilant.
Another speaker said, if one of us is not free, none of us is free. I agree, as one famous quote said, “there will never be nor will there ever be real freedom as long as there is no freedom for women.”
Littlejohn, S. & Foss, A. (2007). Theories of human communication. Cengage Learning.