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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Philippines, sex tourism paradise

Ninotchka Rosca


An interview with Ninotchka Rosca by Zara Majidpour

During my travels in the Philippines, I made some observations which I wanted to discuss with someone who was familiar with the country, culture and the problems it was experiencing. Ninotchka Rosca who is a well known Filipino author, journalist, feminist and human rights activist accepted my request to interview her. During Ferdinand Marcos’s regime she was a political prisoner. She later escaped the danger of being arrested for a second time for human rights activism and was subsequently forced into exile in the USA where she currently resides.

1-In 1994 the population of the Philippines was ~70 million and grew to ~100 Million in 2010 what caused this growth in population to be one of the highest growth rates in Asia?

Several factors influenced this surge in the Philippine population growth; they intertwined and created the perspective that people (children) are a potential for wealth, profit and advancement, as well as the fatalistic perspective that one simply cannot control the body’s processes or physical processes. It is quite ironic for a country that supplies the world with thousands and thousands of medical professionals. Underlying these factors is the sense that for the parents’ generation, there is no possibility for advancement within a system so heavily weighed in favor of the ruling oligarchy – about one per cent of the population – that owns and controls 90% of the country’s resources. If one only owns and controls one’s children, then that is the capital one will use for economic advancement.

Hence, the rise in population growth occurs alongside the growth in the traffic of people, especially women, into both the international labor and sex markets. There are nearly one million Filipinos working in the Middle East, for instance; these are mostly women in domestic work. Filipinos comprise one-fourth of the world’s merchant marine force; they serve on every kind of ship imaginable, from cruise ships to oil tankers. Filipinos send home around $20 billion per annum. These are the people who enable families, communities and the entire nation to survive, even as they create wealth for recruiters, traffickers, travel agencies, airlines, influence-peddlers and embassies even, etc. The US embassy in Manila, for instance, charges $100 per visa application and it has a backlog of one million applications. So multiply $100 x 1,000,000 = $1,000,000,000 or a billion dollars. It is a huge and complicated business but it is basically disguised and legalized trafficking.

This is compounded by the fact that 85% of the Philippine population is Roman Catholic in religious orientation. That brand of Catholicism came from medieval Spain – meaning it is most conservative and thrives on mysticism and ignorance, as well as a sense of disempowerment. One cannot of course underestimate the impact of having a god or gods who are foreign or whose stories take place in the desert when one lives in the tropics of rainforests. In any case, the Catholic Church opposes any kind of birth control or population control – from condoms to pills – and will accept only the rhythm method or abstinence. Because the Catholic Church has been losing adherents in advanced and developed countries, it is to its interests to keep such countries as the Philippines in an eternal downtrodden state; and to keep women especially in a downtrodden state.

The average number of children per family is five, though I personally know of parents with 11 up to 24 children. As often happens, a man will have two or three or even four families, none of which he supports, and have five children in each family.

So we have these two powerful legacies of invasion, occupation and colonialism: the extreme feudalism of the Catholic Church of Spanish origin that decrees people, especially women, cannot exercise control over their bodies, especially regarding reproduction; the extreme capitalism of the United States that transforms everything, even people, especially women, into commodity. Our sense of self is lost.

2- According to the World Bank, the Philippines is one of the top ten countries for teenage mothers Is there any sex education in schools?

No sex education in schools. Gender relations are usually in terms of what is appropriate image-wise – for women, for instance, to appear modest and not too dominant, etc. Currently, there is a Reproductive Health bill filed before the Philippine Congress which mandates that government provide cheap birth control and sex education starting at Grave V. The Catholic Church has opposed this strenuously, saying sex education could lead to abortion. The irony is that 500,000 illegal abortions are done in the Philippines every year. Reproductive health is so low in the country’s political valuation that the Left supports a candidate who opposes the bill.

3- Although prostitution is illegal in the Philippines, it has become a popular destination for sex tourism. What caused this?

Prostitution was virtually unknown in the archipelago until the Spaniards came. There is no local term for it; we use the Spanish word “puta” (whore) instead. But even under Spain, it was virtually unknown. In 1900, a census showed only 11 women working as prostitutes in the city of Manila, four of them foreigners. Organized and large-scale prostitution was established by the US military during the early 1900s, in the period of formal occupation, The US military issued an edict to establish “houses” of vice to “protect” US troops from sexually transmitted diseases. Shortly after their return in the late 1940s, the US military command at Clark Air Base set up ten reed huts for the troops entertainment and brought in women from the vicinity for the use of US soldiers.

This was the rough beginning of the city of Angeles, in Pampanga. Similarly, an “entertainment” strip grew outside the US Naval Base in Olongapo. Quite a large percentage of these establishments were owned by US troops/officers or former US military men. During the war in Vietnam, the Philippines was designated a “rest and recreation” center for the US troops which meant 10,000 US soldiers daily looking for entertainment. Eventually, some of the women were sent to other US bases in Okinawa and South Korea. Some 7000 Filipinas entertain US troops in Okinawa, Japan, and Filipinas and Russian/Eastern European women have taken over as prostitutes in South Korea. With the IMF-World Bank supporting the Philippine government’s policy of tourism development and the need to pay for massive loans to build the infrastructure for tourism, it was an easy government decision to sell the women of the Philippines. The Catholic Church has said nothing/little about this, by the way.

4- In a male dominated field like politics, Filipino women are very active. Since independence, the Philippines had four presidents of which two were women. Do women have respect and equal rights with men in the Filipino society?

The two women presidents of the Philippines owe their ascendance to power to the strength of the bedrock pre-Hispanic culture – which was women-centered and which remains strong, in a subliminal sense. We must also consider that the obverse side of the macho coin is actually dependency on women’s labor and care. One must point out though that the two presidents are basically stripped of their gender identity – that is, they did not have a pro-woman agenda but actually functioned to further the traditional definition of womanhood.

Any woman who must climb to political power in the Philippines, in whatever ideology, must undergo a process of de-genderization. So respect is unquantifiable. One must say that women in politics suffer a virulence of attacks, including sexual innuendoes, comments on their looks, etc., unlike that given their male counterparts.

5- Money sent home by overseas Filipino workers is a major factor in the economy. Occasionally there is news about domestic workers being physically and sexually abused. Are local media informing people about these dangers?

I think most everybody knows by now the danger of working overseas, especially for women. But the mindset is some kind of “exceptionalism” and fatalism – as in “it won’t happen to me,” “what will be, will be,” “God will take care of me,” etc. Again, I must return to the issue of self-empowerment and self-actualization. Women going overseas for a job are considered and consider themselves to be engaged in a “sacrifice” whereas men work overseas for self-actualization, professional fulfillment, etc. Hence, the mindset is that women are to be sacrificed and women consider themselves as sacrificial animals.

I can’t count how many Filipinas I have met whose lives were in a state of suspended animation as they worked 24 hours, 7 days a week, to sustain families back home – and a number of them were supporting their brothers’ children. Labor export, sex trafficking – these are enabled by an intense re-feudalization of the women’s consciousness and yet that is not addressed in discourses on the topic.

This interview was translated into Persian(Farsi) and published in Shahrzadnews Website