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Dr. Natividad Castro: Beyond saving lives, she fought for human rights

Jairo Bolledo

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Dr. Natividad Castro: Beyond saving lives, she fought for human rights

ARRESTED. Photo of Dr. Natividad Castro.

Posted by Jose Dalisay on Facebook

Dr. Natividad Castro's family says her fate discourages acts of kindness and selflessness

MANILA, Philippines – If kindness truly pays, Dr. Natividad “Naty” Castro would not have been arrested and detained by police, her family and supporters say.

The community doctor, who had been planting seeds of hope in rural Mindanao as a development worker for over two decades, was arrested inside her home on February 18, for alleged kidnapping and serious illegal detention. Prior to her arrest, she was red-tagged by the Duterte government.

Her family denied the allegations. All Castro did, they said, was to save lives and fight for others’ basic human rights.

Selfless doctor

Castro is the fifth of nine siblings in a middle class family of business people and legal professionals. 

She grew up in San Juan City and finished high school at St. Scholastica’s College Manila in 1986, over a month after dictator Ferdinand Marcos was ousted through a bloodless revolt. She was the class valedictorian. 

Castro pursued degree in zoology at the University of the Philippines and graduated cum laude. She continued honing her knowledge at the country’s premier state university: in 1995, she finished medicine at UP Manila, and in 2008, she completed her Master of Public Health at the UP Open University. 

Dr. Natividad Castro: Beyond saving lives, she fought for human rights

As a doctor, her trajectory seemed to be towards a life replete with material comfort but she took a hard turn to an alternative road. Her sister, Zarah, explained Castro’s decision.

“She was very selfless. Hindi malaki ‘yung bayad as a community doctor, but at the same time, hindi niya iniisip na ‘O, ganito lang bayad ko, kaya ganito lang gagawin ko,” Zarah said in a Rappler Talk interview. “She was willing to go beyond para ma-accomplish ‘yung kailangang gawin.” 

(She was very selfless. Community doctor are not paid well, but at the same time, she never thought, “Oh, the pay is small, so I’ll just do the bare minimum.” She was willing to go beyond to accomplish what needs to be done.)

In her own words, Castro would describe herself as community doctor, public health practitioner, and a human rights worker. She started doing all of these in 1996, a year after she finished medicine. 

While completing her Alternative Residency Program with the Community Medicine Development Foundation, Castro first worked as a physician at the Community-Based Health Program-Butuan Incorporated (CBHP). 

Castro has a part of the CBHP network for over a decade, according to Filipino Nurses United (FNU) secretary-general Jocelyn Andamo. The CBHP is a consortium of health programs from nongovernmental organizations primarily serving the rural and urban poor areas in the country.

Nag-train kami ng mga community health workers, at ang mga community health workers na ito sila ang naglilingkod sa mga barrio. Si Dr. Naty ay more than a decade na siya naglilingkod. Ibig sabihin na hindi lang siya nag-seserve, nag-train pa siya ng mga tao at nag-empower pa siya ng mga peasants, indigenous people. Nag-train at nag-empower siya to serve other people,” said Andamo.

Dr. Natividad Castro: Beyond saving lives, she fought for human rights

(We train community health workers (CHW), and these CHWs work in the barrios. Dr. Naty has been serving for over a decade. She also trains beyond serving, and she empowers peasants and indigenous people. She trains and empowers to serve other people.)

Alam ko kung gaano kahirap mag-decide ang isang health professional to work unang-una in the PH and pangalawa lalo na sa far-flung areas. Malayo ka sa pamilya mo, wala ka sa comforts ng buhay mo. It’s a path less traveled. Ang daming pressures at ang dami mong iniiwan sa usual buhay mo, tapos ganito ang ginagawa sa ating health professionals,” she added.

(I know how difficult it is for a health professional to decide to work, first in the Philippines, and second, especially in the far-flung areas. You’re away from your family, away from the comforts of your life. It’s a path less traveled. There are a lot of pressures and you’re leaving so much of your usual life behind, only for our health professionals to be treated this way.)

Human rights defender 

Aside from looking after people’s physical health, Castro also dedicated her time fighting for their basic human rights. She worked as a human rights documentor for rights group Karapatan-Caraga. She later also served as the group’s secretary-general.

Documenting human rights issues in the Southern Philippines went hand in hand with Castro’s mission to set up health programs in remote areas. On top of ensuring that deadly diseases won’t gravely affect poor communities deprived of basic needs, Castro also had to deal with the difficulty of reaching remote areas.

She put her mission into practice and faced the challenges of the yearly cycle of malaria, schistosomiasis, and tuberculosis, among other diseases. 

Treating people is one thing, but organizing and teaching them to take care of themselves is another level of commitment. Castro organized the rural communities in Agusan and Surigao provinces so that they may have a safety net when diseases hit their communities. 

After over two decades, Castro was able to form 50 peoples’ organizations and trained thousands of health care workers. By organizing these people, the doctor was able to multiply the health force attending to medical needs of the communities.

Dr. Natividad Castro: Beyond saving lives, she fought for human rights

Some of Castro’s protegés served as paramedics and frontliners when the pandemic hit the country, which didn’t spare even the far-flung communities. By immersing herself into these rural communities, Castro also immersed herself in their plight, causes, and problems. 

The plight of the Lumad became really close to Castro’s heart. She even brought a Lumad representative to the United Nations to help them in their fight against harassment. 

Despite these noble works, Castro got arrested and detained for charges the state has yet to prove. It was far from the payback that her family had anticipated, for all Castro’s selfless work and sacrifices.

It’s discouraging na ‘yung mga taong gumagawa ng ganoon [kawanggawa], ganito ang reward: pahihirapan ka, huhulihin ka, sasabihin na may ginagawa kang masama when, in fact, opposite ‘yung ginagawa ni Dr. Naty,” Zarah said.

(It’s discouraging to see people who do these acts [of charity] are rewarded this way: you will be made to suffers, you will be arrested, you will be told that you’re doing something bad when, in fact, it is the opposite of what Dr. Naty is doing.)  – With reports from Gabriel Joseph Barroso and Mark Lyster Carlota, 

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Jairo Bolledo

Jairo Bolledo is a multimedia reporter at Rappler covering justice, police, and crime.