Resisting Sexual Exploitation in the Philippines: A Necessarily Intensifying Conflict

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Cecilia Hofmann and Melvi Gelacio are two Filipino feminists who toured Australia last September for the Women Cannot Be Bought National Tour. Alison Thorne spoke with them on the Melbourne leg of the tour.

            Melvi explained: “this tour is a return visit from a study tour conducted in 1995 when 15 Australian women, half of them Filipinas, went to the Philippines to study trafficking and prostitution”. Every year, tens of thousands of Australian men go to the Philippines as sex tourists. In Angeles City, a prime sex tourism destination, over 80% of the brothels and strip clubs are owned by Australian men. The Australian women experienced considerable harassment from the sex club owners, but the tactic backfired and they got national news coverage highlighting their concerns.

            Feminist organising on the streets of Quezon City. A concrete outcome of the 1995 tour was the establishment of BUKAL, a grassroots organisation working with street prostitutes in Quezon City in Metro Manila. Cecilia Hoffman is a founding member of BUKAL, and Melvi Gelacio is the current coordinator.

            BUKAL is funded through Qzaid and the Australian trade union aid program, APHEDA. Melvi explained the day-to-day of Bukal: “We work in two main streets. We visit the women every night in our mobile centre. Women come in, rest, have a chat and get coffee, chocolate and biscuits. Sometimes the van is a refuge from the police or bad weather.

            We also visit jails. Many women are arrested for vagrancy and sentenced for up to six months. We work with legal organisations to support women who want to fight this harassment. We want to get rid of legislation which criminalises women.

            We provide services for the women, like condom distribution to help them to safeguard their health against STDs and HIV. Through our project, the women can get free pap smears and STD checks. We also provide health services for the families of the women. Medicines are available at cost.

            Cecilia stresses that BUKAL is different from all other organisations working with prostitutes in the Philippines. A few other programs exist, but they have the objective of helping women to leave prostitution. Where there are no economic alternatives, this is not possible: “Patriarchy penalises women by keeping women in prostitution. But none of our programs will ever say to women: ‘get out of prostitution’. We know that they might not have other options. We aim to empower, not to reform women”.

            Cecilia is critical of the position taken by some organisations for prostitutes which use the term “sex work” and defend prostitutions as a legitimate and valid career choice for women. BUKAL opposes the use of the term “sex work”: “This ‘work’ should not exist. Prostitution is not a choice for women who are poor. Women and sex should not be sold as commodities”. BUKAL’s research reveals that 97% of women working as prostitutes want to leave prostitution but can’t because of the lack of genuine alternatives. BUKAL is working to change this.

            Cecilia explained: “We try to make other economic options available. We do not wish to isolate prostitution as a separate problem. Prostitution is just one form of women’s oppression. We do feminist education about the status of women, about violence against women, about bad employment conditions, about lack of access to political decision making to show that this is part of a larger political system that is keeping women down”.

            Crisis defines our era. Global capitalism has been mired in a long recession since the ‘70s. Far from stemming the crisis, neo-liberal “solutions” have succeeded in increasing world poverty, hardship and the degradation of the environment. Over 1.3 billion people around the world live in poverty – and of those, 70% are women. This ugly and brutal picture is particularly clear in Philippines.

            President Fidel Ramos has a vision of turning the Philippines into a “newly industrialising country” (NIC). But the poor in the Philippines are more realistic when they joke that NIC stands for “necessarily intensifying conflict”.

            As the collapse of many Sountheast Asian economies shows, the fast growth of the so-called Asian Tiger economies cannot be repeated in the ‘90s. The economies growth of these countries – Taiwan, Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea – was built upon the super-exploitation of labour, combined with imported technology and a trade strategy almost entirely dependent upon exports. The newly-industrialised countries rode the crest of the long wave of post World War II expansion. Growth has now slowed. Aspiring “NICs” like the Philippines face intensified export competition.

            Ramos is working to “modernise” the Philippines through privatisation and huge infrastructure projects. Taiwanese and Japanese companies have been invited in to “developed” Manila. The big business developers clear the homes of the urban poor to make way for huge new skyscrapers and shopping complexes.

            Manila now has a population of over 9 million people. Officially there are 2.5 million squatters, but organisers among the urban poor estimate that the real figure is more like 4 million. The urban poor come to Manila from country areas, driven from land transformed by agribusiness or expropriated for use by industry or for the creation of tourist villages or resorts. The Philippines is now 40% urban and 60% rural. But by the turn of the century, the urban poor are expected to far outnumber the peasantry. Employment options are limited.

            Life for women. Melvi explained that the labour market is characterised by strong gender segmentation: “The majority of women are employed in jobs which are an extension of work in the home. For example sewing and domestic work. Women also are considered more patient and capable of doing the fine work required in the electronic industry”.

            The impact of neo-liberalism is harsh. According to Cecilia, “conditions in the Philippines are currently worsening for workers. Contract labour is growing. Very few companies now have permanent workers. They hire people for three to six months and during the period the workers are labelled ‘trainees’, paid lower wages and denied access to social benefits. Because there is such a huge pool of unemployed workers, once this period is up, the workers are replaced with another bunch of ‘trainees’. The main objective is to keep labour costs low”.

            All workers are exploited, but women carry a double burden. Melvi says: “Women get only 47% of men’s pay, even for the same work. Even though the law forbids this, employers have many ways to pay women less. Facilities are poor for workers with children. There are provisions now that companies must provide day care so that breast feeding for mothers is easier. But most factories do not implement this”.

            Work is also very dangerous says Cecilia: “Health and safety conditions are poor. There are not always masks or other safety equipment. Even though safety laws exist, they are not enforced. The government wants to make life as easy as possible for capital. They maximise their profits and the workers’ rights are sacrificed”.

            Lack of reproductive rights is also a crucial health issue for poor women. Cecilia says: “The population is growing very rapidly. There are about a million live births every year. The Catholic Church wants to for bid what they call ‘artificial’ contraception. The governor of one province has banned the health services from distributing contraceptives. Many women are still having six or more children. There are an incredible number of very dangerous abortions, because abortion is illegal. The anti-contraception propaganda takes a heavy psychological toll on women.

            But headway is being made in relation to contraception, especially in the cities. Women’s organisations are doing good work. Even the Department of Health is positive about contraception. But abortion is a particularly difficult subject, because the Catholic church is so vocal. Senators have proposed laws to introduce the death penalty for women who have abortions. Even a victim of incest or rape cannot avail herself of an abortion. There is no legal abortion in any circumstance and no prospect of change in the foreseeable future”.

            Education in the Philippines is also in an appalling state. More than 80% of the education sector is privately owned. The 1987 Constitution provided for public secondary education for the first time. But there is a huge gap in quality between the public and the private sector, and public education is not free. Cecilia explains: “In some of the rural areas, farmers are just not part of the cash economy. They do not have the money for books or other school materials. The public system is there, the costs are minimal but many parents cannot afford these costs”.

            The quality of education is also low. Teachers lack motivation because their salaries are so low. Among those migrant workers who leave the country every year to become domestics or look after small children, there are many teachers. Teaching hardly keeps body and soul together in the Philippines. It is a low-status job, and the work is predominantly women’s work – 95% of the teachers are women, but at the supervisory level they are nearly all men.”

            Sexual exploitation at home and abroad. Given the lack of options, it is not surprising that agencies which recruit, train and export “entertainers” to Japan do a brisk trade in Manila. Just over 17% of households “officially” depend on overseas earnings of family members to survive. Cecilia says: “Employment is so badly paid and the conditions so poor that many Filipinos – half a million – leave the country every year. More than 60% are women. They work in two major categories abroad. One is the household helper category, and the common euphemism for the other main area of work is ‘entertainer’. Entertainers are very often singers and dancers in night clubs. Some of the work available to ‘entertainers’ is just outright prostitution”.

            Prostitution is also growing in the Philippines. Cecilia says that economic factors are important, but stresses the patriarchal nature of capitalism: “Economic pressures are heavy on women. Many women are heads of households. Men have a poor record of staying with their families and supporting their children. But we don’t explain prostitution just through economics. Both men and women in the Philippines are poor. If it were merely a question of economics, there would be many more men in prostitution. We have a very sexist culture.

            The government is developing more areas for tourism and in some parts of the country the largest group of tourists is Australian men travelling with a clear sexual agenda. Sex has become a tourist commodity. In some areas, when new tourist establishments have been opened, prostitution will arise where it did not exist before. This is the demand side.

            We think there are 300,000 women and girls in prostitution. Only a small percentage are in the high end of prostitution catering for wealthy business men, politicians and high-paying tourists men. For the rest, the situation is incredibly grim. Poor women in prostitution end up even poorer. They end up with children and with drug habits. They end up sick. It is a very grave problem”.

            Cecilia asks: “Why does opening up a country to tourism today, automatically include sexual tourism? Sexual consumerist attitudes abound. Sex is no longer a valued intimacy between two human beings – whether a heterosexual or homosexual couple. Sex has become a commodity like any other, but the problems are now on a bigger scale because we have mass tourism”.

            Prostitution is an inevitable consequences of a society which ties sexuality to profits. Sex became a commodity when private property overturned society’s original matriarchal institutions. BUKAL is a self-help organisation, working among the women who struggle to survive through prostitution. Melvi says, “our aim is to help women create their own supportive and empowering organisations”. The basic demands of poor women for equality, respect and economic justice are so simple, but organising to get them is sure to provoke a “necessarily intensifying conflict”!

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