By Merlie M. Alunan, Womens Feature Service
Two of the women have a rather intimate contact with my family – they come every week to wash and iron for the household. Five active adults in the family add up to a rather voluminous pile of dirty clothes every day. The women come once a week to work the washing machine, and even then it takes them a full day to finish the job. At least most of their effort is concentrated on rinsing – the machine takes care of the rubbing and soaping aspects and the spinner takes away the effort of squeezing water out of the wet heavy cloth.
Lisa, a woman of slight built, who stands no more than 4’11” on her bare feet, is due to give birth any time now. She is quick and light on her feet – despite her big belly, always cheerful, joking and gossiping with Basya, her washing partner. The laundry was originally Basya’s job, until she announced her pregnancy two months ago. The discomforts of conception weakened her and she needed to have Lisa’s help. Despite the vomiting spells, the loss of appetite and the general malaise that often come on with the onset of pregnancy, Basya never lost her verve and her good humour, admirably taking her physical discomforts in her stride.
Sometimes they talk about their men. Both happen to be married to ‘tri-sikad’ drivers. The ‘tri-sikad’ is a carriage mounted on a bicycle and is a popular form of transportation in the Philippines, plying the by-ways of the city, servicing short-distance fares that motorised tricycles and jeepneys ignore. On a good day, they may make three hundred pesos (US$1= PhP 46.2) gross and take home the balance after paying the “boundary” cost, or the rental of the vehicle – which might be anywhere between PhP 75 to 120 a day.
At least the ‘tri-sikad’ drivers choose how long they will work, or how frequently they will accept a fare in a day. They also share a good sense of camaraderie with each other. On a hot day, you can see them parking their vehicles under a shady tree and enjoying a bit of gambling on the side. The winner usually stands everyone to a drink, which of course eats into his family’s income. So the day could end with some drivers just barely having enough on them to be able to pay the rent for their vehicles and coming home with empty pockets. Sometimes the rental is deferred because they can’t pay up, ending up in a tidy sum that is often unmanageable.
In any case a ‘tri-sikad’ driver cannot hope to take care of his family from his daily earnings, even if he were totally motivated. Pedalling a bicycle with a loaded sidecar is exhausting, and understandably the driver could do with a drink and some rest. But all this means that the pressure on his wife builds up, and she is forced to augment the family income by her own enterprise – thus ending up often doing other people’s laundry and housekeeping, or weeding somebody else’s garden. It is such a situation that has ensured that Lisa, in the last term of her gravidity, is desperate for a washing job. As for Basya, despite a difficult conception, she is forced to carry on working. The only saving grace is that at their places of work, the women at least eat enough and on time.
Lisa’s current partner, incidentally, is her third husband. She has one child by him and is expecting the second. She has four other children, two from each of her previous liaisons. The children have been farmed out to various relatives from her side of the family. She is very casual about these relationships, and similarly she takes lightly the fact that she is so close to delivering her next child.
Basya has two children in her first and only marriage so far. At least her in-laws have provided her with support when her husband goes on drinking binges and is unable to bring home any income. But Basya also makes sure that she has her own source of money through the backbreaking jobs she does.
The story of Lisa and Basya may seem an ordinary one in the Philippines. It becomes remarkable only when one considers that these two women are no exceptions, that in any Filipino neighbourhood in any barangay, town or city, including in the exalted premier capital region, one encounters millions of women like them. They are all poorly educated, with no skills except the most basic by which to earn a living, trapped in desperate relationships with ill-educated, improvident men, and having children in the direst of circumstances. They live in hovels without water or light and raise their children in desperate poverty.
Did these two women go to school? “No,” Basya says. She explains, “Because my parents were unkind to me, I left home early to escape the violence at home.” Lisa, in contrast, had gone to high school, or so she claims. But her level of awareness is no higher than that of Basya’s. There is no doubt that better education could have helped both these women to earn more, given them a greater sense of self and the capability of managing their lives better.
And it is not just in the cities that you see women like Lisa and Basya. Most women in the countryside are a lot like them too. They will go on to raise sons who will replicate the lives of their fathers, and daughters who are destined to live the desperate existence of their mothers.
The present debate on women’s reproductive health will not make sense if it is not seen in the context of lives such as those of Lisa and Basya. Once this is understood, the urgent necessity of putting in place measures to protect such women becomes obvious.
Whether we like it or not, the nurturing role of women has much to do with the shape of the future.