It is always risky to generalize from a few experiences and draw conclusions about an entire culture, but I am inclined to do so. I’ll tell you what I learned from the women I met in the Philippines.
My clear sense is that they have very hard lives. There seems to be a pattern – although it is not universal – for young women to meet the men they love, marry, and have a child or two or three. There is nothing remarkable about that.
What I found remarkable is that their men frequently found one or two women to keep on the side and they spend their time with those women. Eventually, these men leave their wives and children to live full time with their new women. They abandon the responsibilities of their wives and children with amazing regularity. Furthermore, Philippine society is organized in such a way that this is tolerated. Over the centuries, the Philippines has developed ways of handling this state of affairs.
Since it is such a common event, men don’t judge other men harshly when they abandon their wives and children. It seems to be accepted as a regrettable but normal state of affairs.
The women don’t take legal action against their husbands for several reasons – they see it as pointless. They may not be able to find their husbands to file papers; the courts are slow and unwieldy; the women barely have enough money to survive, much less pay for legal action. And their husbands are poor so they have little to contribute to the welfare of their children even when they are served with court orders, which are rarely enforced.
It was equally surprising to me that women would put themselves in this sad state of affairs. I am certain that these abandoned women, at one time, had confidence in their men and were willing to take their vows and have children. It seems to me that there is a cultural blindness in the Philippines that prevents women from assessing their prospective mates objectively and selecting their husbands with more stringent due diligence.
There are, I believe, two forces that prevent women from carrying out a more deliberate assessment. First, there is the Catholic Church – which still has a pervasive influence throughout all parts of society in this country to an extent not seen in other countries since the Middle Ages. It encourages young couples to marry and have children (presumably Catholic children!). Marriage and children, then, become aims in themselves. Society in general and the Church in particular drive women to marry.
The other facilitating force is the barangay. The barangay is a form of political and social organization I have not come across in any other country. A barangay is a community of some 400 to 700 families that live in a particular area and has an elected (if nevertheless corrupt) governing council that deals with all local issues. These issues span situations such as conflicts between shopkeepers and customers, the cleaning of streets and providing for local schools, to vouching for the character of its members who want to apply for jobs or passports.
Extended families live within these barangays. Whenever anyone in the family needs help, the other members of the family are there to provide that help. As this plays out in practice, many members of the family fail to take steps to look after their own welfare because they know that the other members of the family are morally required to meet their needs. The result, from my perspective, is that the members of these families seem to live in one of two states. On the one hand, there are those who live in a state of on-going crisis. Deserted mothers and children certainly fall into this group. On the other hand there are the somewhat productive members of the family in the barangay who are constantly called on to share their meager earnings with those in crisis. This, interestingly, inhibits those with promise from getting the education they need or starting business ventures at hand because they can never set aside the necessary resources. They need to contribute those resources to meeting the extant crises of the other members of their extended families.
To really appreciate how this operates, we need to take the values about personal responsibility and self-development we share in the West and turn it on its head. Unfortunately, this inverted logic creates a climate that actually assists women to have children, be abandoned and live lives of poverty and desperation.
As a Westerner who met these Filipinas on a one-on-one basis, I felt compelled to assist the women in their moments of crisis. After a couple months, I realized that I was falling into a trap. I had unwittingly adopted their value system. I realized that the women were manipulating me – as they manipulate others – to assist them in handling their crises even though they had created the crises themselves!
In order to improve the lot of the women in the Philippines, the entire culture must undergo shifts in its values on the same order of magnitude as the women’s liberation movement in the West some 30 years ago. Specifically, Filipina women need to come to understand that they hold their destinies in their own hands. Further, they need to feel a moral obligation to manage their own lives to their benefit. This is the task of generations yet to come.
Photos by Jan Wall – all rights reserved