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Mental Health – a Societal Concern Essential to Women’s Well-being

October has been declared as World Mental Health Awareness Month by the World Health Organization (WHO). Awareness is really a key element in addressing this societal concern most especially that Mental Health is rarely discussed and studied and there is still considerable stigma and taboos on matters surrounding mental illnesses.

Reports indicate that 17 to 20 percent of Filipino adults experience mental health disorders, while 10 to 15 percent of Filipino children, within the age group of 5 to 15 suffer the same. NSO accounts mental health illnesses as the third most common forms of morbidity for Filipinos.

According Philippine Health Information System on Mental Health (PHIS-MH), schizophrenia is the top mental health problem in the Philippines, affecting 42 percent (mostly males) of the group studied. Also included in their list of disorders common to Filipinos are depression, anxiety disorder, schizoaffective disorder, acute and transient disorder, and stimulant-related issues.

In the Philippines, various stakeholders have already started to aggressively raise awareness of the public regarding the issue which is a most welcome development. However for most of these interest groups, mental health awareness usually merely focus on identification of certain MH disorders, on signs and symptoms on what to watch out for and the management or treatment of such illnesses. What are left out are similarly important issues that impact on the mental state of individuals but are relegated to the side lights or oftentimes even completely disregarded. These are the social determinants to mental health.

A sound socio-economic milieu is vital to maintaining a sound mental health. In a society where social inequity is widespread, we also find particular sectors at high risk of suffering from physical and mental health challenges.

The WHO captures the crux on the social determinants of the mental health. It aptly stated that “Certain population subgroups are at higher risk of mental disorders because of greater exposure and vulnerability to unfavourable social, economic, and environmental circumstances, interrelated with gender”.

There is recognition that gender is also of vital concern in mental health because of women’s marginalized status in society. But considering that majority of women belong to the lower class levels in the social ladder make them even more vulnerable in acquiring MH disorders.

In our society where almost 18 million Filipino families are already destitute, surviving on incomes below the family living wage of Php30,000 per month (IBON Research group) , where unemployment and underemployment rates are high (there is a considerable 11.5 million who are without work or still looking for more work because of the poor quality of jobs) where inflation rate has been fast increasing, and now at its highest at 6.7 while majority of workers live on pitiful wages, we can surely find majority of Filipinos trying to maintain their mental well-being a major challenge having to face issues of their family’s survival.

We have heard about the case of Kristel Tejada who took her life by consuming a silver-cleaning fluid in March 2013 . She was unable to pay her tuition at UP Manila of Php10,000 because of the “no late payment” policy of the state university. The family had faced financial difficulties after her father was laid off from work at a factory that closed down early on. A few years prior to the Tejada case, Mariannet Amper, a 12 year old girl from Davao also committed suicide out of despair for her family’s impoverished life. In the Philippines, WHO estimated the number of suicides in 2012 at 2,558 mostly among the youth (550 female, 2009 male).

We can also surely find other distressed sectors among the urban and rural poor, where they constantly face the threats of demolition or of being driven out of their lands because corporations are converting them into subdivisions or commercial estates. Or of indigenous peoples, whose territories are being militarized because mining companies’ interest are being protected by investment security forces designated by the government wanting to exploit the rich mineral resources of their communities. In militarized communities, children expressed not being able to sleep well and of experiencing nightmares and bed-wetting, which are apparent signs of trauma.

Then there are those being pursued by the state and it’s security forces because of their political beliefs and for asserting their rights. For those suffering from political persecution and vilification, and where threats to one’s life are constant realities, stress and trauma are too common. Such are the cases of the 5 women human rights defenders belonging to cause-oriented NGO’s from the Cordillera facing trumped up charges or those in the terrorist proscription list. One of them, Rachel Mariano is now languishing in jail for a crime she was falsely accused of. This matter triggered her Hyperthyroidism aggravating the trauma she suffers on the ordeal she had to face together with her family. Depression, sleep problems, fast heartbeat, heat intolerance, weight loss and crying spells are just some of the symptoms she endures.

Additionally, poor women’s burdens are made worse because of their subordinate status in society. Societal norms and standards make them vulnerable to abuse. Women have to contend with society’s expectations on how women should behave and act in ways that are “proper”. Otherwise, society dictates that they deserve the violence inflicted on them. Violence against women is common in our society where sexualisation and commodification of women’s bodies are widely accepted but ironically puts women in a much disadvantaged position. There are also certain mental health disorders that are more common to women such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia. Women’s distorted ideas about their bodies are due to social beliefs on images and roles demanded of women in society. Women’s standards of beauty are that of models and beauty queens who must be fair, tall, thin and who must have bodies with “perfect” vital statistics. It is then no wonder why many women are conflicted contributing to their low self-image and worth.

All of the above social determinants of mental health are factors that make one more at risk to mental health disorders. The higher the social inequities, the higher vulnerability particular groups in society face.

Addressing our mental health concerns therefore entails not only tackling the issues of individuals facing mental health issues. It must in fact address the root causes of social inequalities that make marginalized segments in our society more vulnerable in suffering mental health disorders. A comprehensive program in tackling the issue is therefore of paramount importance. It cannot be denied that the prevalence of mental Illness in our country is a mere reflection of the social ills plaguing our society.

Understanding discrimination and violence vs women

Violence Against Women (VAW) in its different forms are gender-based abuses that target women in particular because of how they are viewed in society. It is one of the most palpable manifestations of women’s unequal status in relation to men in our society. Although VAW is usually perpetrated by males, it must be clear that VAW happens not because of the ridiculous belief that men are naturally violent and aggressive. The problem has its origin in our history, when the subjugation of women emerged in our society. It is systemic and deeply entrenched in the socio-cultural and political systems where both men and women accept the inequalities as realities of life.

Status of women in Pre-colonial Philippine

Pre-colonial Philippine records point to the fact that women enjoyed a high status in society prior to colonization except in areas in Mindanao where feudal-patriarchal values are already much ingrained. But in a major part of the Philippine archipelago, women played important roles that put them in a high social position. There were women priestesses (Manjajawaks, Babaylans and Catalonans) who held important rituals in communities as well as occupy political positions where they were warriors or village heads. Division of labour was based upon sex and age, but everyone played complementary and reciprocal roles which were spontaneous and natural. Each one performed tasks that complete the whole social cycle crucial for the survival of the communities. Sexual division of labor did not yet mean oppression of one by the other. Housework and agricultural production done collectively by women was as much valued as the hunting performed by males. Care for children was a collective responsibility. In traditional Ifugao society til recent past, community-sanctions against VAW were in place and these were community and not private affairs.

Spanish colonialist degraded women’s status

The feudal-patriarchal culture has been largely introduced by the Spanish colonialists in what has come to be established later as the Philippine nation. During this period, the ideal Filipina was Maria Clara – the meek, subservient, docile, weak, passive, defenseless, and vulnerable woman portrayed in Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere who doesn’t have a mind of her own and relies on men for protection and decisions. The Spaniards institutionalized the oppression of women through laws and religious teachings. Women cannot own properties nor attend school. Their roles were relegated into the sidelights to the home, serving her husband and taking care of his children that were not as valued anymore. Even as they continued to work in the fields as peasants, their role in production became invisible and unrecognized because the colonizers and landlords only accepted the work performed by the head of the households who were males. Spanish Friars demonized the Babaylans as the “monstrous feminine.” (evil enchantresses endowed with black magic powers). Babaylan women were slaughtered, their bodies mutilated and fed to the crocodiles.

American colonialist brought the commodification of women

When the Americans came to colonize the Philippines in the 1900’s, they introduced the public school education system. However, they instituted the bourgeois-decadent culture where the “liberated” woman became the ideal. The Filipina began aspiring to become the white American woman whose reason for being was to become beautiful and appealing to men. They were portrayed as such for them to be saleable and profitable in the market. American companies started to promote commercial products in the Philippines, where women were used in advertisements portrayed as sex objects, who were beautiful even without brains just like in beauty pageants, and where their bodies became commodities with a price – the more titillating, the better for the saleability of the product. Then came the US military bases in Olongapo and Clark, pursuant to the 1947 Military Bases Agreement. Women around the areas where the American bases operated were peddled like meat. Prostitution then became widespread where women were used for the entertainment, satisfaction and as stress-relievers of the American servicemen.

Creation of the double-face image of the Filipina

This historical process resulted in the creation of the image of the double faced Filipina — on one side, the meek, weak and subservient woman personified by Maria Clara and on the other side the prostitute and temptress embodied by Magdalena. On one hand, is the women sheltered inside the home whose role is to serve the husband and bring about children who would later become his heirs and on the other hand the “liberated” woman illustrated as a sex symbol whose body can be used to sell products or bought with a hefty price more so if she can stimulate and excite the imagination of the male onlookers. These portrayals of women have been inculcated in the minds of every Filipino, deeply entrenched and passed on through several generations.

Perpetuation of unequal status through social institutions

The different social institutions such as the family, church, mass media, schools, laws and state machineries became the means for these to be accepted as norms. In mainstream society, even when children are yet unborn, they are already assigned gender roles. Parents select clothes which they think are appropriate for their kids’ gender. Pink is for girls, signifying femininity and blue for boys to indicate masculinity. When children are born and raised, they are introduced to toys for boys (truck, gun) and toys for girls (dolls, housewares), aggressive games for boys and nurturing play for girls because these are later to become their roles/tasks as men and women. And when they go to school and enter the university, there are assigned courses for boys – (analytical -Engineering) and girls (nurturing – Nurses, Teachers). The gender role stereotyping reinforces the belief that boys are different from girls and that masculinity and femininity must be standards that boys and girls must comply with otherwise they are looked upon as acting inappropriately. Men who act feminine are judged as “binabae or bakla” and women who act as men are “tomboys” which also put them in vulnerable situations because they are expected to compete with men. Even men who choose to do traditional roles of wives are belittled as “under the saya”.

And these are the images that have led the status of Filipino women to become secondary to men, discriminated against and vulnerable to gender violence. Their image as sex symbols and as women whose main role in society is to serve man’s needs and wants have been shown to increase people’s acceptance of gender role stereotyping where violence against women has also become accepted as something natural.

VAW as hidden crimes:

But the occurrence of VAW is invisible because they are actuality hidden crimes. Many victims choose not to talk about their personal experiences because of fear and the stigma that goes with these offenses and myths that blame the victim for the crime committed against her rather than these being seen as the perpetrator’s accountability. These crimes are further concealed because these are usually committed at home by intimate partners or by men close to them where women are threatened or made to feel guilty and even discouraged by family members from reporting to authorities or filing cases against their perpetrators because of the shame they might face. Thus these crimes remain invisible and unreported. Women victims of domestic violence also would rather stay in the abusive relationship believing that is best for their children, or it is rather shameful to have a broken marriage or even because she doesn’t have much of a choice since she is financially dependent on the husband.

Prevalence of VAW in the Philippines

Presently, even with the different declarations and passage of laws that should protect women from VAW, a lot is still wanting.

In 2012, the United nations reported over half of murdered women were perpetrated by partners or family members, and 120 million girls worldwide have been forced to have sex at some point in their lives.

In the Philippines, statistics on incidences of VAW are still high. In 2016, the Philippine National Police-Women and Children Protection Desks (PNP-WCPD) reported for that year alone, there were 9,916 cases of rape that were handled, a significant number (7,350) were committed against children. Moreover, the reported cases on violations of RA 9262 during the same year or the Anti Violence against Women and their children Act (Anti-VAWC) reached an appalling figure of 35,093. Acts of lasciviousness were experienced by 5,015 females, 60% among them were perpetrated against children.

Such occurrences are serious violations and cannot be disregarded and condoned by anyone. Thus, it is but right that appropriate measures be instituted in order to address these serious phenomena.

Addressing VAW

Sadly, inspite of the fact that Philippines being a signatory to various UN declarations advancing women’s rights; where several laws have been passed to address the various forms of VAW (Anti-rape Law, Anti Sexual harassment Act, Anti VAWC Law) and the enactment of the Magna Carta of Women (RA 9710), said to be a landmark law that would supposedly address women’s multiple issues, these efforts have not really substantially resolved the unequal status of women vis-a-vis men in the Philippines. A lot is still wanting.

In a report of World Economic Forum on Global Gender Gap, the Philippines ranks seventh in the world and number one in Asia of being gender inclusive, assumed to be addressing considerably the gender gap, However, this does not actually translate to women’s improved status and conditions. In the same report, it states that government has not fully bridged the gender gap in both economic participation and political empowerment. While the report says that there were substantial changes for the better on the status of women in managerial positions, women now outnumbering males and wages received now higher for women, they comprise a negligible number and do not reflect the overall change in women’s status since majority among women in our society belong to marginalized classes, the peasants and workers.

Addressing women’s status therefore cannot be merely done through signing of declarations and enacting regulations and rules. Of course, these are big leaps that women have achieved as they fought for these to change women’s status in society. We cannot account them however to be the decisive factors. Even if we have the best laws if there is no political will to implement them, much more those in power don’t actually have the sincerity in addressing women’s concerns, especially among the poor and most marginalized segments in Philippine society, these become just empty accomplishments and have no meaning for majority of our women. And if gender equality is achieved only among the rich, we cannot speak of it as significant to the greater number of Filipino women who are poor. Economic and political gains for a few women cannot reflect advancements on the majority of the population of women who are poor and deprived. The general conditions of the impoverished must then be substantially changed for these to be relevant for majority of our women.

Likewise, the resolution of VAW is more than just instituting regulations and rules. For even if we imprison each and every perpetrator, the problem will not be substantially addressed for as long as mind-set of the people remain unchanged on how women are looked upon. VAW will definitely persist for so long as women remain oppressed in society and the context why these phenomena occur remains unchanged.

Decisive resolution

The discrimination against women and gender based violence thus can only be resolved when the context by which inequality persists is comprehensively and decisively resolved. This means getting to the bottom of the fundamental issues that women as well as men face. First and foremost their concerns on impoverishment, landlessness, lack of livelihood and jobs must be addressed. For if these issues are not tackled, even if women and men become equal, then we have only settled one aspect of the issue but not the issue on the inequality between classes which is also crucial for majority of women in Philippine society. What relevance is there for them if they become equal but both will still live in poverty and in oppression?

Women must then arouse, organize, be vigilant and take action together with men not only to address gender inequality but much more work for fundamental changes on the socio-economic and political situation in our country that address impoverishment and marginalization of the people to deliver significant changes on the conditions of women. It will only be when these have been accomplished can we say that women have achieved full equality in society. #nordis.net

Reference:
Aguja, H.J. 2013. The Filipino Woman: A Gendered History. The Mindanao Forum. Vol. 26 No.1 https://ejournals.ph/article.php?id=7122
Perez, E. N.2013. Philippine Women’s Role and Gender Equality.
Saldua, A.D.I.R. 2012. The Role of Women from Pre-Hispanic to Spanish Era. Tonks. UP Open University. https://tonkshistory.wordpress.com/2012/02/22/the-role-of-women-from-pre-hispanic-to-spanish-era/
Torralba-Titgemeyer, L.S. La Mujer Indigena – The Native Woman, A description of the Filipino Woman during Pre-Spanish Time,
World Economic Forum, Gender Gap Report 2016
World Economic Forum, Gender Gap Report 2017
PNP-WCPD 2016 Report on Incidences of VAW
VAW Report UN 2012

Retracing the True Beginnings of IDEVAW

November 25 marks a very important date for women the world over. Waves of critical events transpired on this particular date bringing to the fore violence against women as a legitimate societal concern in turn engendering awareness towards this issue.

On December 17, 1999, the United Nations General Assembly designated this date as International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (IDEVAW). Since then, UN member states begun celebrating this date defining strategies “to end violence against women, empower women, and achieve gender equality”.

However, it is not really to UN’s credit nor to governments celebrating this day around the world why the issue of VAW started to be given fundamental importance. Way before UN countries formally recognized this historic event, commemorations had long been taking place organized by women activists who had grasped the real meaning behind this date.

IDEVAW started as a venue for paying tribute to three courageous women who were clubbed, strangled and beaten to death by security forces of then Dominican Republic’s president Gen. Rafael Trujillo on November 25, 1960 after they came from prison to visit their husbands who were themselves
imprisoned by the dictator.

Patria Mercedes, Maria Argentina Minerva and Antonia Maria Teresa, more popularly known as the Mirabal sisters were born to a family of middle class farmers in a rural community in the Dominican Republic. At a period when it wasn’t ordinary for women to finish schooling, they were able to earn themselves their college degrees. For this, they became the honor of their hometown. Their education however was not just confined inside the classroom. They were able to raise their awareness on the social realities of their country as well.

Minerva, the youngest among the three, took up law but she was denied her license to practice for she outrightly rejected the romantic advances of Trujillo. Trujillo reportedly threatened her stating: “What if I send my subjects to conquer you?” To this, the brave Minerva responded, “And what if I conquer your subjects?”

Also, while others would give utmost priority to their families, the sisters took on a wider calling. Patria, the eldest among the three sisters articulated their sentiment about this matter- “We cannot allow our children to grow up in this corrupt and tyrannical regime. We have to fight against it, and I am willing to give up everything, even my life if necessary.”

The three sisters established the group known as the “Movement of the Fourteenth of June,” named after the date of the massacre earlier witnessed by one of the siblings. It was a clandestine popular resistance movement which fought the dictatorial rule of Trujillo. They went by the name “Las Mariposas” or The Butterflies, their pseudonym in the underground which later became the symbol of resistance in their country.

On several occasions, Trujillo gave orders for the harassment, arrest and imprisonment of the Las Mariposas. But they did not waiver, ready to sacrifice even their lives for the cause. Teresa contended, “Perhaps what we have most near is death, but that idea does not frighten me. We shall continue to fight for that which is just.”

And it was their uncompromising position against the dictatorship that led to their cruel demise. But their violent death did not break the resistance. Instead, it ignited further spurring many more to join the movement. Consequently, it led to the end of the Trujillo dictatorship 6 months after the hideous death of these noble women.

In this important occasion of honoring the “Las Mariposas”, it is essential to go back to the real essence of celebrating International Day to End Violence Against Women. IDEVAW when it was first celebrated as an event which commemorated these valiant women who led a resistance movement against a corrupt and tyrannical government. It was an occasion which underscored state perpetrated violence against women as a grave crime. The celebration of their lives yielded the campaign to resist violence committed against women, in the context of the advancement of women’s rights and for social transformation.

For the past decades, UN and many among UN member-states, including the Philippines started to recognize VAW as a matter of concern leading to formulations of policies towards tackling this issue. Domestic and sexual violence, and other forms of VAW perpetrated against women at home, in schools, in the workplace and in the streets begun to be legally recognized as crimes against women. It must however be stressed that these achievements were not just handed over to women on a silver platter. VAW became acknowledged as a legitimate concern because of women’s painstaking struggles. These are gains of the women’s movement in the campaign to end VAW.#