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UPPER RIGHT HAND: The International Day of Women: A Reminder to Defend the Victories of Women in their Fight for Freedom and Democracy

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DAVAO CITY (Mindanews/29 March) — For 50 long years, I observed the celebration of the International Women’s Day or IWD every March 8.  It was a one-day celebration but later on, the whole month of March became women’s month in the Philippines.

The International Women’s Day is a commemoration of the triumphs and victories of women’s struggle for better working conditions and their participation in changing the society equally with men.

Looking back, it was on March 8, 1857 when thousands of women workers from textile and clothing industries in New York, USA, marched for the first time to protest against low wages, the mandatory 12 hours work per day, and poor and inhumane working conditions.  Police dispersed the march, and many women were wounded and arrested.

On March 8, 1908, the first biggest women workers’ mobilization against capitalist exploitation jolted New York and other capitalist counties.  Around 30,000 women workers demonstrated against the same unfair labor practices in 1857 and demanded for legislation against child labor.  This was also the first largest mobilization demanding for women’s right to vote.

In 1910, Clara Zetkin together with leaders of the First Socialist International from 17 countries, proclaimed March 8 as International Working Women’s Day to commemorate the struggles of women all over the world.  IWD was first celebrated in 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland.  Since then, March 8 has been celebrated as IWD in many countries.

It was only in 1977 that the United Nations formally declared March 8 as International Day of Women.

In the Philippines, the first commemoration of IWD was on March 8, 1971.  In Manila, women workers, students and professionals marched from Plaza Bustillos to Mendiola to protest government policies that worsened poverty and intensified the hardship of Filipino families and the whole nation.

Thus, the consciousness on women question was like a prairie fire that scattered in the academe, in workplaces, in farmlands and at homes.  Researches and studies were made on the specific situation of Filipino women from pre-colonial period until the republic government.

Prior to this, women were invisible in our history as a fighting Filipino people.  We only heard of “the wife” of Diego Silang and Andres Bonifacio and “the sisters” of Jose Rizal, as if they just accidentally took part in the anti-colonial revolution.

Deeper researches and studies taught us how outstanding was Filipino women’s participation in the making of history, in producing and reproducing society.

The Center for Women’s Resources in Quezon City, the Women Studies and Resource Center in Mindanao and the Cordillera Women’s Education and Research Center in Baguio, produced study materials like Filipino women orientation, historical roots of women oppression and write-ups on various issues that concerned women.  When studies were conducted in the communities and academe, workplaces and farms, women started to learn the roots of their oppression and the possibility of liberating themselves from their exploited and oppressed situations as proved by the heroism of women in our history.

One of the glaring parts of herstory was the bravery and strength of the Babaylans (or Balyans) who stood up against the cruelty of the Spanish conquerors.  The Babaylans were considered important in every village because they were women advisers, healers, and priestesses.  They were labeled as witches, satanic and heretics and their houses and prayer places were destroyed and set on fire.   Undaunted, the Babaylans attacked the headquarters and the churches of the Spaniards.

We also learned of Gabriela Silang, Tandang Sora (Melchora Aquino), Gregoria de Jesus, Josefa Rizal, Teresa Magbanua and many more, not only as wives or sisters of men who fought against the colonial rulers – from Spanish to American colonialism, but as women who took part in the revolution, side by side with men.  They were even armed fighters, leading men and women during combats. Salud Algabre from Cabuyao, Laguna, was a peasant who became a General of the Sakdal Revolt in 1935. In 1934, Narcisa Paquibitan led the two-month workers’ strike in an American tobacco factory and confronted the American governor general on their plight.  She was arrested and jailed after the strike.

Filipino women fought for the right to suffrage until they succeeded and were allowed to vote in 1937.

During the dark days of martial law, countless women fought against Marcos’ dictatorship, participating the armed and parliamentary struggle. The national leader of MAKIBAKA. Maria Lorena Barros joined the New People’s Army and gave her life as a commander in 1976. Women workers organized themselves in unions and peasant women set up their own cooperatives and associations in order to collectively fight for their rights to life and liberty.

During peace negotiations between the government of the Republic of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front, women were ready to present their agenda through their official delegates.

During the national party-list elections, women had their own party-list to represent them in the house of Congress.

Filipino women were in the forefront in establishing and running women and children conferences in Asia and internationally. In fact, it was our women leaders who led the formation of the International Women’s Alliance or IWA.

Undeniably, our unsung heroines shaped the history of our nation.

But sadly, on the 110th anniversary of IWD, women’s rights still need to be recognized.  Currently, there are more or less a hundred laws and policies for women yet women remain a minority and a small part of them are in the labor force.

On March 7, 2021, the United Church of Christ in the Philippines – UCCP Council of Bishops issued a statement of solidarity to all Filipino women and all women in the world in celebration of the 110th IWD. It said that from April 2019 to April 2020, 2.39 million women were unemployed or underemployed.  Women get lower wages than their male counterparts with the same kind of work. Women still account for 53% of the unpaid family workers while they constitute only 37.7% of the wage and salary earners.  With a very limited opportunity, the average household annual income of women-headed families is high. Thus, more women had to seek employment abroad even if there is a high social cost of migration.

In the time of pandemic, poverty is very widespread and women bear the brunt of finding ways and means to feed their family.  While family members had to stay home due to lockdown, more cases of domestic violence were reported.  Cases of violence against women and children remain high and continues to intensify with new forms like cyber pornography and prostitution.  It is alarming to note that now more than ever, prostitution victimizes younger girls and we hear more cases of mothers or guardians pimping their own kids.  According to the Foundation for Media Alternatives, online gender-based violence increased to 165% in 2020.

Worse, there are even reports of sexual abuses perpetrated by the police and soldiers like “sex for pass” in the checkpoints they set up.

A progressive nation is measured by its healthy women populace. If women remain malnourished, their children are also greatly affected.  It must give attention to women’s participation in the labor force, giving them work with living wages and benefits.  The government should put more effort to taking care of women and children, not only ensuring food on their table but roof over their heads too.  The state must educate more women by giving free education from primary to tertiary level.  More than ever, the state must ensure the safety of half of its population by recognizing their rights as women.  These rights were acquired by women through hard struggle, even sacrificing many lives in order to be recognized as human beings.

The Center for Women’s Resources reported 27 cases of rights violation involving not less than 54 women human rights defenders, activists, peasant leaders, and youth activists from January 2020 to February 2021. In Southern Mindanao region, there are 12 women political detainees in five different jail facilities and nine were arrested during President Duterte’s government.  These women rights defenders, peasant leaders and members of farmers’ associations were slapped with trumped up charges like murder, attempted murder, and other cases which are so far out of their real activities.  There are even women teachers of Lumad schools charged with child abuse, kidnapping and illegal detention. These teachers were authorized by the parents as guardians of their children while in boarding schools.  They took extra care of the schoolchildren and yet, they had to go through the difficult processes of defending themselves in court.

Women human rights defenders were tagged as terrorists because of their mere affiliation in militant people’s organizations.  Women from the media, doctors and lawyers and lately, a judge were included in the red-tagging scheme of the government and its military agents.

Many are asking what is happening after the century-old celebration of the international women’s day? Why do women continue to be relegated to secondary roles? Why are women not given a bigger role in policy-making especially confronting Covid 19 when there are many experts and skilled in this area?  Why are women still looked upon as objects of sexual pleasure and regarded as commodities?

The international women’s day is not only a celebration.  It is also a reminder for women to uphold their rights and take action for themselves, for their families and for the nation. It also impels women to work side by side with men to truly liberate themselves from all forms of oppression.

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews.  Upper Right Hand is a revolving column of the Union of People’s Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM). Grace Mahinay is an associate member of UPLM as a paralegal. She was with the First Quarter Storm and was detained for many years during martial law of Marcos and Cory Aquino’s government.  She is also a member of Gabriela, a national militant women organization.]

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