By Carolina S. Ruiz Austria

The word "Heresy"

was used by Irenaeus in Contra Haereses to discredit his opponents in the early Christian Church. It has no purely objective meaning without an authoritative system of dogma.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Naming & Claiming: Engagement as Empowerment

This post is based in part on my recent lectures about sector politics, particularly, "women" as a sector before the PLCPD Women's Sector Pre-Conference Consultation (June 21, 2007) and the PILIPINA Conference and General Assembly (June 26, 2007)

What is the measure of successful political engagement? Was Abanse Pinay's loss in the polls a portent of things to come for sector-based political engagement? These are a few questions I have been forced (?) to reckon with recently when I was invited to lecture on something as "standard" and at the same time, "problematic" as "the status of Filipino women."

There have always been naysayers who put down attempts by women to organize politically in the country and what many of them have raised is the fact that in the Philippines, we have more laws that guarantee women's equality more than most other countries, especially in our neck of the woods, Southeast Asia. According to PILIPINA Chairperson Rina Jimenez David who also spoke in the PLCPD forum, this was the simplistic explanation offered by Abanse Pinay's detractors for its recent loss in the polls.

It is worth noting though that Abanse's total votes (that is, those actually counted in its favor), didn't really reflect a dismal decrease in its mass base. When party lists where virtually unheard of and before it became politically expedient for traditional politicians to back their own "party list" (masquerading as a marginalized sector), Abanse's mass base was enough to win it a seat in the 11th and 12th Congress.

Of course there can be other explanations and among them, what always manages to crop up is the same issue of "pro-women" legislation. Don't we have enough? (Too much even, according to some).

In grappling with the issues of "women's political engagement," sector politics and keeping up with current feminist theories, I found it very useful to refer to the insights offered by Prof.Rebecca Cook of the University of Toronto when she lectured in Manila in 2001.

She mentioned stages in women's political engagement which could broadly include the (1) struggle for political inclusion and participation; which she also termed, conditioned on accepting a benevolent patriarchal notion of the state, (2) the struggle for equality and non-discrimination, which includes for the most part, claims for recognition of various women's rights including the articulation of violations against women as "violations of equality." (3) Finally, the current and still emerging frame of claiming sexual and reproductive rights.

While in part chronological and historical, Prof. Cook's frames can actually also be used to distinguish various claims whether in legislation or litigation or advocacy at various points in the local women's movements' engagements. Many of these frames still inform current issues and can certainly overlap at one time or another in a single piece of legislation.

Many bills that address the articulation of "rights" and "granting" them categorically to women or groups of women (such as the Magna Carta bill and the Women's Empowerment Bill) still incorporate the language of basic claims of "political inclusion, and broadening participation," by women. Likewise, in the last fifteen or twenty years, "Pro-women" legislation has been numerous in the area of "naming" crimes and rights violations against women as prohibited acts. These have included Sexual Harassment (1995), Trafficking (2003) and Violence Against Women and Children (2004).

Of course there have also been bills filed with "welfare" and "services" in mid such as the Solo Parents Act (2000) and the Paternity leave law (1996), as well as the hardest of all to pass, the reproductive health care bill.

Using such frameworks to classify "claims making" thus far by the women's movement, it is easy to see how much has also changed (although much has also remained the same) in terms of language and the articulation of women's rights in law. Earlier agendas like political inclusion (the right to vote) are much more basic and raise no issues as to the role of the state. Likewise, such claims did not even begin to question what 'women" were before the law since women were not yet formal subjects of law!

Of course everything was blown open so to speak with women's rights claiming and the articulation of claims through the language of "equality" and "non-discrimination." Conflicting positions on treating women like men (sameness) and treating women differently (that is as women according not to women but to men), (difference) have raised a lot of issues around fitting women's agendas into legal language.

A lot of current issues in local advocacy for women's rights focus on these issues which are far from being completely reflected on or discussed even by and among the women's movements' most prominent activists. Most of the issues around "implementation" of laws are actually debacles (or the tip of the iceberg of would-be debates) around how to treat women and how to apply the law. From critiques of victimization, assertions of agency, and even lack of state attention to empowerment and preventive measures and an over emphasis on the penal aspect, these debates need our current attention.

In having made use of law feminists have come to realize the limits of law not only in articulating women's claims but in offering alternatives and solutions. Despite the lessons, many in the women's movements still expect a lot from new legal text as if their meanings need no further engagement.

The amendments to rape law for instance in 1997 have always been touted as the re-classification of rape from a crime against chastity to a crime against persons but very few lawyers, let alone prosecutors actually realize what this principle means. Rape is still tried the way it has always been tried, in court as in media, with the woman victim's credibility ever in the balance and her sexual history always deemed the standard for the validity of her claim.

In having passed an anti-trafficking law which removed criminal liability from women trafficked into prostitution, police were still in a quandary two years after the law was passed when after having raided an alleged "cybersex" internet cafe, women working in the establishment were detained even after police determined there was no law (let alone no provision in the trafficking law) which could be the basis of criminal charges against them. The women had to get legal counsel and threaten the police with illegal detention charges and a habeas corpus petition before they were allowed to go home.

Yet on a significant level, the acceptance and validity of women's claims of rights violations was an important hurdle and recent legislation has served a worthy purpose of bringing such claims to fore. The challenge now of course is in continuing to engage the way these laws are being interpreted and applied and how to counter act their application alongside deeply rooted biases such as the privileging of "virginity" or sexual innocence, imposing a standard of victimization (not believing an educated woman she was raped) and most importantly, coming to grips with reinforcing a standard of womanhood. In other words, in having engaged law as women, and as a sector, we are also being categorized as a homogeneous group.

This is of course where current "rights claiming" and the language of sexual and reproductive rights perhaps presents us with more responsive frames. In a 2005 conversation/round table which was published by Reproductive Health Matters, Sonia Correa and Roslind Petchesky, leading feminist voices in SRR advocacy noted how the language and moevement of SRHR is more inclusive than the earlier women's movements. In fact, in many parts of the world, SRHR movements are, while still participated in by a number of feminists, do not all claim their primary identities as such but often are in HIV/AIDS and the LGBT movements.

In the Philippines, the closest example may be the Reproductive Health Advocacy Network (RHAN), which while a broad coalition of feminists, health advocates, HIV/AIDS activists and the LGBT, do not all come from a single orientation around gender analysis and women's human rights.

Of course on one level I have noted that this broad engagement may very well bespeak of a successful approach and political maturity on the part of local feminists. But at the same time, the missing "feminists" and blocks of the women's movement which rallied around the penal law (VAW, trafficking and anti-rape amendments) can very well explain the reason why in RHAN, feminists are a minority although by no means not a leading voice).

SRHR agendas are also unlike past "rights claiming," not quite within legally recognized terms so to speak. While very much supported by and given basis in a myriad of Human Rights instruments and international consensus documents, language is still very much up for grabs and to be in SRHR now means to engage this directly.

Unlike earlier rights claiming as well, the claims for SRHR also come into collision with the changing notions of state/citizenship. In the issue of trafficking (and migration) we have for instance forayed into what was once unchartered territory when it comes to rights in relation to citizenship since in a globalized world, it has been more possible to articulate rights claiming based on the concept of persons as rights bearers and not simply being a factor of citizenship. Of course the real possibility of rights and the reality of exercise still depends a lot on states acknowledging their accountability.

In simple terms, even SRHR claims for state funded and supported services is a hotly contested notion. With states (not just the Philippines) shedding more and more of their mandates for basic services (the very enabling conditions of rights), and turning them over to private institutions and the free market, to assert simple reproductive health care services by the state now is to directly challenge full market control over health care.

Of course what further complicates the issue is that with the shedding of such state mandates of basic services, states have by no means began a retreat. More and more states are expanding their presence and concentrating and emphasizing their "police" powers. The Philippines has recently just passed an Anti-terrorism law based on the template of the US Patriot Act and in the law, many "rights" have been sacrificed.

Among others, it supersedes law prohibiting prolonged detention without the filing of of an information (legal charges) against the detained person. While the law on this used to be 12/18/36 hours (depending on the gravity of charges), now the Anti-Terror law authorizes police to detain persons for up to three days without ever having to file charges!

It wouldn't be a complete picture of course without mentioning that fundamentalist influences on government policy regarding basic family planning is making things even worse.

This much said, I wanted to emphasize and I can only hope I did that in those two lectures that strategically, even as sector based engagement still remains practical and serves a specific purpose of "recognition," in the naming of claims and the claiming itself of rights, identity politics does have its down side if we do not take heed.

Having gone our separate ways, it is not only segments of the broad social movements
(environment, indigenous peoples, HIV/AIDS, the LGBT and feminists) that have thus far become fragmented, but rather it is the women's movements and feminists themselves (at least from where I stand) who have also compartmentalized, specialized to the point of turfing.

Indeed, the most basic challenge to sector based politics, specifically women's political engagement is the challenge of bridging dialog, within women's movements and across social movements.We need to talk! (Seriously).

This is not of course in any way a hankering for monolithic movements which in many ways goes against our current understanding (and importance) of diversity. If only to share lessons learned and to strengthen each other, its worth doing.


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