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PWC Centre UPdate UPdate> 1998





Women’s Rights are Human Rights!
By Luningning Alcuitas-Imperial

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As December 10 - International Human Rights Day - fast approaches, it is timely that we critically reflect upon the idea of human rights from our perspective as grassroots working Filipino women. We also need to ask whether the human rights situation for Filipino women is improving. After 50 years of living with international standards for supposedly “universal” human rights, are we any closer to achieving the full scope of our human rights?

Distorted concepts
When we think of human rights, we usually think of individual freedoms like the right to life, liberty and security of the person. We also think that “human rights” are guaranteed in international instruments, such as the Universal Declaration. Human rights seems to be something that exists naturally - somewhere above the societies in which we live where government and economics plays such an important role in our lives.
But this thinking - primarily propagated by governments such as the U.S. and Canada which hold themselves out as champions of human rights, but who often ignore human rights violations in their own backyards - merely exposes the use of human rights as an ideological tool. For where did the original concept of human rights come from? They were not magically granted by governments, but were only won through people’s struggles. Thus, it is in the hands of the majority of the exploited and oppressed peoples to define what the full scope of human rights is. It is also in the hands of the people to struggle to assert their human rights.

Another way that the “human rights” debate has been distorted is through the emphasis on civil and political rights, such as freedom of speech. While such individual rights should be promoted, this should not mean that an individual has the right to exploit others to accumulate wealth and power. Individual rights are not the only types of rights we need to struggle for. Our economic, social and cultural rights must also be asserted. The right to have a livelihood, the right to education, the right to healthcare, the right to housing - these are all fundamental rights. Without these important rights, respect for our civil and political rights means nothing.

Asserting our viewpoint
As grassroots working Filipino women, it is important to grasp these distinctions. We can draw inspiration from the struggle of Filipino women, led by GABRIELA (the national alliance of militant women’s organizations in the Philippines). GABRIELA in 1987 first formulated the slogan, “Women’s Rights are Human Rights!” This was done to assert the viewpoint that there is a broad range of human rights violations committed against grassroots women - from domestic violence to the violence perpetrated by the state (such as rape, sexual molestation and abuse used as a form of torture by repressive regimes). As Liza Largoza-Maza, Secretary General of GABRIELA, puts it, “Mainstream feminists were not talking about women’s rights as human rights, and they weren’t recognizing state violence as violence against women. You cannot remove the understanding of violence against women from the larger context of state, economic and political violence and repression.”

The roots of our oppression
This deeper understanding of human rights helps illuminate our situation as grassroots Filipino women in Canada. The roots of our exploitation and oppression and, thus, the violations of our human rights stretches all the way back to the Philippines.
Foreign and elite domination has marked our history as Filipino women, stripping us of our civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. There is rampant inequality in Filipino society where the majority (80%) live in poverty and a tiny minority continues to profit from our land and labour. Women are amongst the hardest hit in Philippine society, especially with the intensified implementation of the globalization policies of liberalization, deregulation and privitization. Narrowing job opportunities for Filipino women are the result. Massive displacement from the land, mass retrenchment of workers and the increasing prices of basic commodities have pushed more Filipino women into the thriving sex trade. It is estimated that there are 400,000 Filipino women prostitutes and another 100,000 child prostitutes forced into the sex industry in order to survive.
Of course, the Estrada regime will do nothing to stop these violations of Filipino women’s human rights since it profits from our continuing displacement, commodification and modern-day slavery. In fact, the Estrada regime (and its predecessors) are the most blatant violators of the human rights of its citizens (whom they are supposed to protect). The Philippine government systematically represses people’s organizations organizing themselves to assert their human rights. Women political prisoners continue to exist in the Philippines. Increasing militarization will mean renewed attacks against women. For example, a GABRIELA Fact Finding Mission found that two women (Cely Anonuevo and Marites Casamis) who had been salvaged by the military in Dingalan, Aurora in June 1998 were subjected to sexual violence as a form of torture. The teenage girls’ bodies were found unclothed and riddled with gunshot wounds around their genital areas and breasts. These horrific human rights violations will likely intensify if the Visiting Forces Agreement with the U.S. is ratified, since the continued presence of the U.S. military in the country will be ensured.
With this continuing crisis of the semi-colonial and semi-feudal structure of the Philippine economy, Filipino women are forced to migrate abroad in order to survive. Our numbers swell throughout the world - although the impact of the Asian crisis means that Filipino women working abroad are now in a more vulnerable position. Can we even speak of any improvement in the human rights situation of Filipino women if we cannot even find work to survive in our own country?

Human rights for Filipino women in Canada?
As grassroots Filipino women in Canada, our human rights situation also continues to worsen. We remain extremely marginalized, exploited and oppressed within Canadian society. Despite serving as cheap labour to help fuel the growth of the Canadian economy, our basic human rights as women are not respected. The right to housing, the right to employment which makes full use of our skills and abilities, the right to be free of violence (especially socio-economic forms such as poverty), the right to education - these remain an elusive dream for our women who are struggling to assert our equality as working women in Canada.
If we look at the situation for domestic workers - who are the majority of Filipino women in Canada - the picture is even more gripping. With the fundamentally exploitative characteristics of the Live-in Caregiver Program of Canada Immigration, domestic workers are suffering some of the worst forms of human rights violations. Long hours, low wages, physical and emotional abuse are problems along with the larger structural context of the mandatory live-in requirement and the temporary working visa. Can Canada really hold itself out as a champion of human rights for all? Canada blatantly exploits and oppresses a marginalized group of Third World women, while ironically ignoring the right of all Canadian families to child care. Canada relegates us to second-class status and, even now, seeks to attack our rights through the proposed changes in the Immigration Legislative Review. While Canadian institutions (like the Canadian Human Rights Commission) plan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the UDHR, Canada refuses to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Protection of Migrant Workers’ Rights and Welfare.

Continuing the struggle
Recognizing our human rights situation, we also grasp that, as grassroots Filipino women in Canada, our continuing struggle to assert the full scope of our human rights must be done in the context of our overall struggle for our liberation. This means actively educating, organizing and mobilizing ourselves against the root causes of our migration, exploitation and oppression and actively supporting the Filipino people’s struggle for national and social liberation. For it is only when conditions of exploitation, inequality and foreign domination are removed, that we can truly celebrate the assertion of our human rights. q

PWC began the Centre UPdate as a means of empowerment and education of the community. Since it's early beginings the Centre UPdate has been the voice marginalized Filipino women in Canada.

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