What women of Eastern Samar value in time of great need

Sylvia Estrada Claudio

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In barangays, they are given 'women-friendly spaces,' where they can meet, discuss problems, make plans – even dance

Sylvia ClaudioIn keeping with the season, I will share a happy story about the simple folk of Metro Manila and Eastern Samar. 

In December, an organization I work with, Likhaan, sent 12 of our best community organizers to Eastern Samar, one of the areas hit hardest by Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). Likhaan works with community health organizations and clinics, led by grassroots women and men. These leaders have served their communities in Metro Manila over many years.

We sent them to the municipalities of Guiuan, Mercedes, and Salcedo with medical supplies, seedlings, and radios. They were there for 15 days.

Upon arriving in the municipalities, they lost no time in presenting themselves to the mayors, the DSWD, the PNP and the rural health units. It was these agencies that identified for them the barangays they should work in. They were sent to a total of 23 barangays. The agencies also identified the initial pool of volunteers.

In short order, they met with these initial contacts. Armed with their long experience of counseling with women and with a specially prepared module on psychosocial work in disaster situations, they dedicated this very first meeting to hearing the people’s tales of misery, courage, and survival. Our organizers listened with a sympathetic ear; respected the silences as well as the outpourings; gave space for the realization that people were not unique in their suffering; and then pointed people towards communal action to address immediate problems.

More education sessions followed about organizing, women’s health, and psychosocial support during disasters, with special emphasis on the needs of women and children. And they did it through fun and interactive methods that answer the continuing need of survivors for, well, good cheer.

Those sessions with the initial contacts were then expanded to include as many as would want to participate in the barangays. In each of the 23 barangays they were able to establish “women-friendly spaces,” where women could meet to discuss problems and make plans. They also set up communal vegetable gardens with the seedlings they brought – eggplants, tomatoes, beans, wombok, okra, and bitter gourd.

These women-friendly spaces then needed a “center,” a place for municipality-wide meetings. That too was facilitated. In one municipality, two barangays vied for the honor and the issue was resolved by taking a vote. One of our organizers told me, “Sanay naman tayo magpaboto, di ba? So na-establish ‘yung sentro, complete with barangay resolution, para hindi madaling bawiin ang ‘binigay na espasyo.” (We are used to holding referenda so the center was established in the winning barangay. The barangay council backed this up with a resolution assigning the space to the women, so they have some security that the space is theirs.)

In one of the rural health units, the doctor was down to her last 3 packets of contraceptive pills and was dividing the packets up so that all those who needed the pills could have a few pieces. The team informed the Likhaan office in Metro Manila, which promptly sent a whole year’s supply.

The radios could access only one station, Radyo Bakdaw. But these were the first source of news since the typhoon. For some women it was the first time that they could finally determine what time of day it really was; for many, the first time to hear music again and, at the sound of music, to dance.

In two weeks’ time the communal gardens were bright green spots amidst the gray debris and blackened soil. People had been worried that when the relief ends, they would return to hunger. But they now tended these vegetable patches with renewed hope.

The needs are numerous and varied: pump boats, fishnets, better housing, simple farming tools, coconut and rice seedlings. But what the people appreciated most were the non-material things. They asked to continue the education sessions. They asked for more copies of the Likhaan book, Kung Saan Walang Duktor ang Kababaihan (Where Women Have No Doctor) or “kahit anong p’wedeng basahin” (anything at all we can read). They were most grateful that, “tinuruan kami mag-organisa. Maraming nagbibigay ng tulong, pero di nila kami tinuturuan paano gagamitin ‘yung tulong.” (You taught us how to organize. Many give us aid, but they do not teach us how to make use of that aid.)

In all, the team mobilized over 600 people, who came to their sessions and agreed to help. They inducted around 250 members of the newly formed organization “Abante Kababayen-an (Forward, Women). But the story does not end here. Likhaan has decided to deploy some of our organizers there for at least a year.

In the meantime I leave you with the image of the final night of partying before our team took the long road back to Manila. FIESTA! Hundreds of women and their families from the 23 barangays played games, talked, ate, danced, and laughed.

In my mind I still see them sharing jokes in the vegetable gardens growing bigger and greener by the day, or dancing to the music of Radyo Bakdaw in the shade of their women-friendly spaces. My heart rejoices at their message that it is collective will and solidarity, and the chance to learn and to discover, that people value most in time of great need.

I don’t think it useful to make people guilty about their pleasures just because others suffer. I believe guilt is often used by the institution or person laying on the guilt to manipulate people. Instead, let us be of good cheer as we celebrate the coming year and vow to continue to rebuild. Because, as the grassroots leaders of Metro Manila and Eastern Samar have shown me, it is the cheerful heart, and not the guilty one, that creates miracles. Rappler.com

Sylvia Estrada-Claudio is a doctor of medicine who also holds a PhD in Psychology. She is Director of the University of the Philippines Center for Womens Studies and Professor of the Department of Women and Development Studies, College of Social Work and Community Development, University of the Philippines. She is also co-founder and Chair of the Board of Likhaan Center for Women’s Health.

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