Vaginas in the time of Duterte

I almost threw my phone when I saw a screencap of Duterte’s directive to the Armed Forces of the Philippines to shoot women rebels in the vagina to render them “useless”. The curses went out of my mouth and head as fast as a Gloc-9 song. That very moment made me imagine that a gun would already be up any woman’s vagina, at the mercy of a mercenary, clad in camouflage, holding the trigger.

The statement was made in line with the intensified military operations ordered by Duterte against the belligerent New People’s Army and their supporters under the guise of combating terrorism in the country. These military operations are reflected in beleaguering Martial Law in Mindanao and in far flung areas nationwide that has targeted, afflicted and killed the indigenous peoples, farmers, workers, youth, church people, teachers, human rights defenders and the many unnamed who do not belong to Duterte’s circle of friends, the oligarchs.

After continuous reports that members of the New People’s Army were surrendering by the horde, flown to Malacañang, offered with a China trip and that he would offer a P20,000 reward for each Lumad who could kill an NPA combatant, comes this extremely vile invitation for a free pass inhumane assault on women.

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, in his speech during the establishment of the Tienda Para sa mga Bayani at Camp General Adriano Hernandez in Iloilo on February 22, 2018, defended his ‘shoot her in the vagina’ comment since receiving backlash for it. (Photo by SIMEON CELI JR./PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO)

Not the first time

In his directive, we could say that hindi si presidente/mayor ang nauna.

Long before Duterte gave marching orders to shoot women in the vagina, there were Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan. Karen and She were the two students from the University of the Philippines Diliman who were abducted in 2006 in Hagonoy, Bulacan by “The Butcher” Major General Jovito Palparan during the bloody counter-insurgency program Oplan Bantay Laya 1 and 2 of the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo regime.

According to Raymond Manalo, the farmer who was also abducted by Palparan’s men and court witness against The Butcher, Karen and She were hung upside down naked, tortured and sexually molested. He personally saw how they were hung upside down naked while pieces of wood were inserted to their vaginas. Cadapan even told Manalo that he was raped.

Manalo’s escape and testimony was the affirmation of Palparan’s unimaginable and gross human rights violations under Arroyo’s helm who now struts like a president again in Duterte’s august chamber. Karen and She were students who served as community organizers and researchers on the feudal plight of farmers in Hagonoy when they were abducted. We are counting days before the court releases their decision to either convict Palparan or set him free. Until now, Karen and She are nowhere to be found.

And then there was Liliosa Hilao, the first victim of the many cases of extrajudicial killings under the dictator Marcos, Duterte’s idol. Liliosa Hilao, a young campus journalist in the prime of her life who wrote against the Marcos dictatorship, was tortured, raped and killed within 24 hours of her arrest. Her brain and intestines were taken out, her mouth became an ashtray, a hole was found in her throat, gun marks were seen on her legs. She was butchered. Her lifeless body was cut open from her head down to her vagina like an animal carcass. She was 23. Today we find the Marcoses being restored to power, a poll recount and a dictator bosom buddy from the presidency and favored by no less than Duterte himself.

To take us further back in history, let’s look at our lolas. The comfort women were the generation of Filipinas who suffered under the imperialist Japanese occupation as sex slaves. Women were rounded up in their communities, seized by the Japanese while in their houses, sleeping, doing chores or fetching wood.

Such is the story of Maria Rosa Henson who was only 14 when she became a comfort woman. She recounted how 12 soldiers would rape her, let her rest for a while, only to be raped again by 12 more soldiers. They’d be confined in any garrison and raped by 12 to 30 Japanese soldiers a day notwithstanding if they are bleeding from the previous sexual assaults or feeling any kind of pain. Rape is already an unimaginable assault for women. Imagine that being done by 12 to 30 men a night to one woman. Henson joined the Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon (HUKBALAHAP), a guerilla group established mostly by peasants that defeated the Japanese imperial army. Her story inspired other Filipino comfort women to share their story and break their silence several decades later.

Almost eight decades later, these women who are slowly dying are left with no apology from the Japanese government. The Philippine government didn’t even indemnify them or seek justice for the atrocities they underwent. Some parts of the society even denied their existence and agreed with the Japanese argument that they were prostitutes. A statue symbolizing a comfort woman was built in Manila to honor the sacrifices of our lolas. Yet even this statue, this rare physical recognition of their sacrifice, wants to be eradicated by the Duterte regime because it “tarnishes” the relation of Japan and the Philippines.

Lola Rosa at home, March 1996. Maria Rosa Luna Henson. ("Grandma Rosa") (1927-1997) was the first Filipina who made public her story as a comfort woman (military sex slave) for the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War.

Lola Rosa at home, March 1996. Maria Rosa Luna Henson. (“Grandma Rosa”) (1927-1997) was the first Filipina who made public her story as a comfort woman (military sex slave) for the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War.

Assault on women workers

Sexual assault is not the sole form of violence against women and children. Assault can be seen and felt in various forms that this macho-fascist society has established as a social construct.

Today, we find our Filipina inside freezers. Joanna Demafelis, an overseas Filipino worker in Kuwait, was found dead inside a freezer and was there for more than a year. She was said to be killed by her Lebanese and Syrian employers thru strangulation or torture. She fled the country in 2014 to work as an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) to support her family that she left behind in Iloilo.

From a freezer in the middle east to a cold jail in Indonesia, we find Mary Jane Veloso. The mother of two was imprisoned in 2010 after being framed by her recruiter to carry illegal drugs in her baggage. Prior to her work in Indonesia, she used to work in Dubai, United Arab Emirates for six months but left her job there because her employer attempted to rape her. Had it not been for the continuous calls of the Filipinos and sympathizers all over the world to save her—a victim of human trafficking—from death row, she would already be dead according to Indonesian laws.

Demafelis and Veloso are one of the thousands of Filipinas who left and continue to leave the country to seek better pastures for their families. Due to the lack of opportunity here in the country, low wages and incessant increase of prices of commodities and services, many of our women fall victim to forced migration for the sake of survival.

But what is the situation of our women workers here in the Philippines?

For two decades, women workers of Slord Development Corporation in Navotas City produced export quality canned sardines in the Philippine market, endorsed by no less than the Queen of Media Kris Aquino. The prime endorsement and international recognition raises something fishy behind the corporation’s success. No, there are no manpower agencies in this company. Only that workers are divided in three categories: regular, extra regular and extra. A different form of contractualization likened to the size of a fast food order.

Regular workers comprise the lowest number among the workforce and earn the minimum or above minimum wage. Extra regular workers currently earn P370 a day while extra workers only earn P280 a day. The said categorization is based on the prioritization of those who will be given work each day. The workers’ job depends upon the availability of the fish to be processed. No fish, no work. Extra workers line up each morning at the company gate to vie their chance to work every day. They do the same work as regular and extra regular workers but they are the least priority in the distribution of workload. According to them, the plight of the workers is worse in other canned sardine making companies in Navotas.

Workers of Bleustar Corporation in Muntinlupa, the maker of Advan shoes and boots, suffered from the running away of their company when they fought for union recognition and pushed for their collective bargaining agreement. Women workers cap off their day at work lining up towards their employer who grope and kiss them one by one before they get out of the factory gate.

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Triumph International, one of the leading international women’s underwear maker, ran away from its workers in 2009 and reasoned that the company went bankrupt. They sometimes make Victoria’s Secret underwear. Though they earn above the minimum wage, the number and quality of products they make everyday is several hundred percent larger than the price of the product they make. Imagine the disparity of the price of a Triumph or Victoria’s Secret underwear to the wage of a worker who makes several pieces of those products everyday. Thru the persistent investigation of the workers, they found out that the company was planning to transfer their operations to Laguna where wages are lower than the Metro Manila rate.

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Advan, Triumph and Victoria’s Secret are products being sold in the country’s leading department store – SM. In 2001, the management of SM department store didn’t want to renew the five-year collective bargaining agreement deal with the women workers’ union. Deeming the management’s action as a greedy attempt to rake in more profit, the workers staged what was then unthinkable – a series of women’s strike spanning across several branches such as SM Cubao, SM North (formerly SM West), SM Carriedo (now called SM Clearance Outlet), SM Makati and SM Harrison since 1990 up to the early 2000s.

In a rare showcase of stating women’s situation in a pageant, Miss Universe 2017 Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters herself said that, “In some places women get 75% of what men earn for doing the same job, working the same hours. And I do not believe that this is right. I think we should have equal work for equal pay for women all over the world.”

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Making ends meet in the slums

Apart from women workers who are underpaid, unsafe and harassed, women in the informal sector are suffering a great ordeal in their line of work. Unable to have a minimum wage job earning opportunity, women in slum areas and depressed communities bank on the source of livelihood fit to their knowledge and ability to get food everyday – garlic peeling and garbage scavenging.

The garlic peeling industry is a famous source of living in communities located along the shores of Manila City. Garlic peeling is a strenuous task and risks the health of its peelers. One has to soak the garlic bulbs for a while before the manual peeling process begins. In Baseco Compound, each woman is paid P5 for every kilo of garlic they peel. In Happyland, Tondo, each woman is paid P4 for every kilo of garlic they peel. Each garlic peeler is given 14 kilos of garlic to peel which means women in Baseco earn P70-P80 a day while those in Happyland only earn P60 a day.

When garlic is not available and not enough, women would shift to “pamumulasi” or garbage scavenging across Metro Manila until dawn with their children or grandchildren and take home a few hundred pesos and “pagpag” (combination of all the food found in the garbage). In Tondo, women even scour the dangerous streets of men for passengers as pedicab or tri-wheel drivers.

Guinea pigs

All of the stated are happening to women in the formal and informal workers sector while a state-caused neglect and greed is throbbing in the veins of almost a million Filipino children – Dengvaxia. 830,000 Filipino children fell victim to the Dengvaxia fiasco, a vaccine sold to the country thru neoliberal ways and means for political grandstanding and corruption.

Parents from the above said communities have shared their nightmare due to the Dengvaxia disaster. All of them were out of words to express their anger and agony on how the government treated their children and grandchildren like guinea pigs to a vaccine administered without considering and putting the welfare of the children in front.

Candy, a mother from Baseco, rushed her daughter who was administered with Dengvaxia to the community health center because she was having a high fever. She didn’t make it to the health center’s cut off and they were refused to be given medical attention. She asked while crying why were they denied of medical attention. Was it because they were poor?

Even Duterte himself said that the parents who are complaining on the Dengvaxia controversy are “maarte”.

Some mothers have given up watching the news to avoid hearing weeping mothers whose children died and blamed Dengvaxia for their deaths. The state has capitalized the poor women’s plight who cannot afford to buy thousands of Pesos worth of vaccines for their children. Access to healthcare in the Philippines has always been far from the reach of the poor. Many Filipinos die of diseases that are treatable but eventually die because people are afraid of doctors, not because they fear injections, but because they don’t have money for hospitalization.

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Killing fields

Parents from several areas in the country are fuming over the Dengvaxia vaccine administered in schools that has caused torture and death to children. Torture and death is not a new experience for the young Lumads of Mindanao. Parents and children are experiencing the brunt of Martial Law in their determination to defend their Lumad schools and ancestral lands.

Military attacks against the Lumads have intensified in a time when a leader from Mindanao rose to power. Denied of the right to education, health and government support, the Lumads of Mindanao took their fate on their own hands and decided to establish what the government failed to do for centuries – build their own schools.

In the remote mountains of Mindanao, the Lumads were able to establish more than 200 schools whose curriculum empowers the indigenous peoples in their struggle for their ancestral lands and rights. These schools became the target of arrests, military attacks, strafing, bombing and Martial Law with the Duterte regime’s premise that the Lumad schools are run by the belligerent group NPA. The Lumad have been forced to evacuate at the very sight of a drone hovering around their communities in fear of another military attack. It takes them six hours to several days before they evacuate to a secure place. Recently, the military denied passage of food support to the Lumads who fled their lands due to the rabid militarization of their communities in the CARAGA region. The military tried to torture them with hunger.

Despair in a bleak system

While the Lumad children and schools are being attacked by the state, the Filipina youths are subjecting themselves to prosti-tuition despite the Duterte regime’s bogus free tuition policy. I had the chance to visit Iloilo recently and was quite surprised that the city almost had the same traffic problem as Metro Manila’s. A colleague said that a professor once asked several taxi drivers why traffic is really bad in the city. To which the drivers replied that many of their passengers whom they pick up during rush hour are “kolehiyalas” (female college students) who are with older and noticeably well-off men.

I would not forget to mention the suicides of female students who were unable to pay their school fees or requirements despite being Iskolars ng Bayan – Kristel Tejada, Rosanna Sanfuego, Nilna Habibun, Marianette Amper.

Presyong Divisoria

Like women forced to sell their bodies, the Duterte regime has sold our sovereignty to imperialist powers.

Foreign monopoly capitalists continue to bank on the export-oriented and import-dependent mode of economy the Philippines while enjoying low cost of raw materials, low wages in the global value chain and a market for overproduction. Destructive mining corporations and plantations continue to ravage our lands, mountains and waters.

China has aggressively claimed our islands in the West Philippine Sea and Benham Rise. Instead of condemning China’s bullying, Malacañang told us that we should be thankful to China for the establishments that they have built in the said disputed islands. Never mind the islands we lose as long we have investments in the country said his supporters. Even the idea of investments is fake news because these investments are nothing but hot money or stocks that China can pull out any time.

Never mind China when we have the United States who has laid waste over our “independence” for more than a century now. All of Duterte’s brusque demeanor towards the US is now taken off the table as he took his place as the lapdog of US imperialism. US bases continue their operations in the country, joint military exercises are still being held, the biggest investments still come from the US, neoliberal policies (i.e. deregulation, liberalization, privatization) are still enforced and will be taken to a whole new level upon the approval of Charter Change where 100% foreign ownership will be gifted to monopoly capitalists. Presyong Divisoria, no?

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‘Vanessa’, a 22-year-old student, came out in 2009 to expose her alleged rape by a US Marine inside a Makati City hotel. She did not press charges for fear that the Visiting Forces Agreement-protected US soldier perpetrator would only go free, as in the Subic rape case of ‘Nicole.’ In 2014, transgender woman was strangled to death by a US soldier, serving as part of the VFA, in Olongapo. (Photo by Bulatlat)

Vaginas at gunpoint

Our vaginas are held at gunpoint by the US-Duterte regime and the system. We are beyond livid but not surprised with Duterte’s remark. It doesn’t come as a surprise because US President Donald Trump himself has led it with his Pussygate by saying, “Grab ‘em by the pussy.”

What we need to realize is that, based on the ordeals above, even class struggle is applicable in vaginas. Exploitation among women doesn’t only happen when they are physically hurt, sexually abused or catcalled. Women are exploited according to their rank in society (peasants, workers, middle class). The lower their rank, the more severe their exploitation.

Those in the bottom of the society are burdened to deal with life as a peasant (under usury, land grabbing, low wages as farmworkers) and as a woman at the same time who needs to tend to each landlords’ needs (like service in the hacienda as a server or a sex toy), to be betrothed to another man she doesn’t like only to be a payment for the family’s debt, to not have a voice in the family and participate in the discussion of political and familial decisions, to always be at the service of her husband. Each class has a certain situation of exploitation but it all boils down for women to be obedient and follow the authorities that holds her throat – her exploiter, the state, the macho-fascist and patriarchal society.

These women don’t have anything or are being deprived in life which is why they chose to fight be it in the parliament, the streets or in the mountains. To lose everything makes them fight for everything. Class struggle requires smashing chains in order to break free.

This we owe to our women who participated in the ultimate form of struggle for women’s liberation—Liliosa Hilao, Lorena Barros, Christine Puche, Tanya Domingo, Erika Salang, Recca Monte, Jo Lapira—and all the beautiful women who have found their place in the armed struggle. The almost half a century civil war in the countryside that Duterte curses when he can, and can only muster a “shoot her in the vagina” bravado when told that women rebels fight like Amazons.

Duterte wants to render women irrelevant. What he fails to realize is that women are already partaking in a greater cause—a revolution that will give birth to a new society.

Banner from UP Center for Women's Resources program for women martyrs

Banner from UP Center for Women’s Resources program for women martyrs

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