Philippines: Why Women Follow This Pied Piper of Manila

Carlos Celdran is called the Pied Piper of Manila. As he takes tourists around the poorer localities of the city, dressed in a ‘barong tagalog’ (a formal shirt) and a black hat, he engages the visitors with historical data and a whacky sense of humour. But the tourists have a further source of entertainment: they are simply flabbergasted by the number of local women following Celdran for free contraceptives.

Celdran uses his personal funds to buy contraceptives to give away to impoverished mothers. On an average he spends more than Php 15,000 (US$1 = Php 45.6) in a year on birth control pills and Php 10 per box of condoms.

Explaining his reasons for distributing contraceptives while conducting tours around the city, Celdran says, “It can’t just be about tourism. I had to squeeze in a social development angle since I stare at poverty in the face daily. I decided to do my bit to advocate family planning by distributing free condoms and birth control pills whenever we walked past squatter communities. I’ve been doing this since 2003.”

“After I’ve shouted long and loud enough that I am giving out free birth control pills and condoms, who do you think eventually walks boldly up to me?” he asks. “No, it’s not the shirtless, unemployed men sitting around; not the tattooed teenage boys with blonde Mohawks; and not the girlfriends or the prostitutes. It’s the mothers carrying half-naked babies with malnourished toddlers at their heels who ask for the contraceptives.”

As if to prove him right, 26-year-old Evelyn walks up to him. “May I ask for four boxes?” she asks Celdran. She looks older than her actual age and points out to her five children, born barely a year apart. Her husband has been jobless for years but occasionally works at the pier to buy food that lasts for a few days. “My husband doesn’t like to use condoms. It is impossible to use natural methods because my husband beats me when I refuse to have sex with him, especially if he’s been drinking. This is the way of life for many wives here,” Evelyn admits in Filipino, grasping her boxes tightly. “I can’t feed any more children since I’ve become too weak to accept the laundry jobs I used to do. My children are hungry, naked and have never gone to school,” she adds bitterly.

By now a small crowd of noisy children, women and a few men have gathered around Celdran, but he stops himself from handing a box of pills to a pretty, petite girl. “Naku Miss, you’re too young to be using things like this. You should be in school,” he chides. “I’m 17 and I already have two children,” she giggles, “I can’t afford to buy contraceptives but I don’t want to give birth again because it’s very painful.” She gestures to an adolescent boy grinning before a stack of rusted drums. “My partner is embarrassed and doesn’t want his friends to know I force him to use a condom now.”

Before Celdran can reply, another woman taps him on the arm. “Thank you for all of these,” she smiles holding up an assortment of condoms and pills. “I just got married but I don’t want to get pregnant and stop working. My husband doesn’t make much so I have to help him save. This is a big help.”

The women Celdran comes across are aware that artificial means to avoid pregnancy are not allowed by the Catholic Church but they insist they have no choice given their poverty. “The previous mayor of Manila wanted us to have more children and because of this the health centres stopped providing free ligations and contraceptives,” laments Evelyn. “Our husbands don’t involve themselves with child rearing or family planning and leave everything on us.”

These are only some of the people Celdran has helped. “They are people without the means and education or maybe they are too lazy to even improve their lives. But men and women are increasingly opting for contraceptives. They understand that they prevent pregnancies and it’s their choice. I don’t force the decision on anyone,” he clarifies. “The tourists who see what I do are happy and relieved that someone is taking the initiative to address this need. Some even make a special donation to support my humble campaign which, of course, is very encouraging.”

But has he faced any problems because of his unconventional campaign? Celdran’s reply is prompt, “Believe it or not, no one has criticised me about any of this. I take this as a good sign that I’ve somehow succeeded in raising the level of awareness about sexual responsibility in this part of the city at least.”

(Courtesy: Women’s Feature Service)