By Marivir R. Montebon
It took my grandmother’s generation 30 years to see a suffrage law passed, but after the first election of women, the Japanese came. We had to pick up the pieces and begin again. Taking the lesson from triathletes, you go through the whole length, and then again, until you are done, it’s not done. – Anna Leah Sarabia
Since 1906, a drop of milk has made a difference in the lives of women and children in the Philippines, albeit silently. Gota de Leche Manila was a project of the Asociacion Feminista Filipina, and became the banner program when the La Proteccion de la Infancia was incorporated in 1907. Gota de leche was the name everyone remembers, and has seen the unfolding of one crisis after another in the Philippines, taking an active part in the survival and triumph of Filipino women and children through the ages.
Here we look back to the leadership of Natividad Almeda Lopez, who joined La Proteccion at age 15, and served as its president even as she was the first Filipino woman judge and justice.
The women leaders of Gota de Leche have actively participated in the suffrage movement in the Philippines, aside from responding to concerns of life and death in the midst of war, starvation, and disease.
In these trying times of the Philippines, Gota de Leche has continued to take up the responsibility to help mothers and children in the Yolanda devastated areas in Central Philippines.
Anna Leah Sarabia, following the footsteps of her mother Lourdes Almeda Lopez and grandmother Justice Natividad Lopez, takes such responsibility personally and squeezed her time for this OSM! interview. Excerpts:
1. Which areas are you sending relief to?
We have sent to places that were not being prioritized by the big agencies in the first days: Northern Iloilo and Capiz (Panay), Biliran and Coron. The Canadians recently arrived in Panay, and the people of Palawan have rallied for Coron and nearby parts. Biliran has very few volunteers still. But we continue sending to Panay and Biliran as we gather materials and donations.
2. What is the core program of the institution? Why?
After the Philippines lost the Philippine-American War at the turn of the 20th century, one of the biggest problems was famine in many parts of the country. Carabaos and cows were decimated by war and disease, and people were not able to plant — making healthy brown rice scarce. Americans then imported polished white rice, and made the population vulnerable to beri-beri then raging. Mothers stricken with the disease who gave birth and nursed their babies passed it on — until the infant mortality rate reached 80%.
The feministas were the only organized group at that time, and some doctors appealed to them to save the population — and the women quickly organized gota de leche, including the first dairy in the country, and the first milk collection, distribution and feeding program.
The core program has not changed since 1906: providing nutrition support to malnourished children (with milk and supplements), and food support to breastfeeding mothers. Malnutrion among children remains a problem to this day, 100+ years later.
3. On a personal note, what inspires you to do this kind of work?
In the beginning, I could not understand the dedication of my grandmother, Natividad Almeda Lopez, who joined La Proteccion at age 15, and served as president even as she was the first woman judge and justice in our country, and of my mother for the institution. She worked for the restoration of the Gota building which later earned a UNESCO heritage award.
It was only in the mid-1990s, when I began seeing references connecting Gota de Leche to the suffrage movement and to women’s early campaign for education and empowerment that I understood what it meant to them, and to other early women advocates.
Besides attending to indigent malnourished children and to poor breastfeeding moms, we have established links with the schools around Ubelt to strengthen a sense of community service in the students. The problem of safe spaces for women in evacuation sites of typhoon Yolanda has given us the opportunity to open our simple facilities and services to them. I hope that the government will make use of this offer of ours to typhoon victims.
4. Our country is undergoing tremendous, untold challenges this very moment. This moment now will define us and determine our future. environmentally, economically, politically, holistically. What is your call/ought to be done that we will emerge victorious as a people, as women?
I wonder if it is facetious (or even futile) of me now to imagine that things might have been different and better if the culture of untrammeled capitalism and machismo had not dominated our society in the last 60 years. It is a mentality that has promoted material greed, plunder of earth’s resources and of women’s bodies.
This has proven to be not only unsustainable. It is also socially unjust, and must be changed. But how does one change such a system? Important laws that protect women and girls take years, even decades, to pass and then to be implemented. The men who promise reform and revolution end up reinstating male dominance. The media in our country is owned either by big business, the church or government, and the people in power take so long to recognize the need for change.
But we have to find ways, we have to influence and enlighten people using creative means. Maybe mother nature is not as patient. Who knows what really created the force which devastated so much in our country? Who knows what changes it will bring? The important thing is that we should never give up.
It took my grandmother’s generation 30 years to see a suffrage law passed, but after the first election of women, the Japanese came. We had to pick up the pieces and begin again. Taking the lesson from triathletes, you go through the whole length, and then again, until you are done, it’s not done. It’s the lesson for advocates of the Reproductive Health Law, and for gender and social justice activists.