By Sylvia Hubilla
Round Rock, Texas
Down on her knees, Dolores closes the lid of the last huge box with packing tape. She feels so alone and very tired. She surveys several boxes in varying sizes. How do you pack memories of 35 years in boxes like so much junk? Do you label some “HAPPY” and some “SAD”?
Finally, Dolores summons enough strength to leave the house to buy her one-way ticket. “This is it,” she tells herself. “No looking back.”
Dolores steps off the Cebu Pacific flight under a slight drizzle. Standing on the tarmac at the Manila Domestic Airport, she looks up to welcome the raindrops on her face as a sort of baptism…and a promise. She hurries to get out of the rain, which is pouring by now. At the baggage claim area, she looks for her three small pieces of luggage. So little baggage for such a major move!
She fumbles in her purse to see if she has change for a porter. She has less than P2,000 in her wallet after the amount her mother sent her for her fare. This, plus P1,600 in her ATM – is all the money she has in the world. Not much to show for 35 years of marriage to a practicing corporate lawyer!
Dolores is a pauper – no job, no home, no husband, and worse, 60 years old! At an age when most people are retiring, Dolores is only starting to look for some means of support for herself. With no capital to start a business, and not young enough to easily apply for a job, how does a separated woman like Dolores move on?
In the meantime, her sister and her family have given her shelter. The first thing she does is to sell her wedding band. This gives her the amount to maintain her bank account.
The few jobs she held – being a cashier in a gasoline station, teaching in elementary school – did not even give her enough money for herself, or a little extra for the children’s needs. For every time she has a job, her husband would stop paying for household bills and the family’s other needs. She had to pawn jewelry given to her by her mother, to pay the electric bill, or even to buy food for the day. For 35 years, the family was always hard-up. Yet the husband played tennis, and later on golf, several days a week!
Incredible as it may seem, for 35 years, her husband kept her ignorant of their financial status. She never knew how much his salary was. She never saw a single pay envelope! The money he gave her barely paid for for food and the kids’ school needs.
Dolores could not work full time. She had always been sickly, even as a child. After four pregnancies, her asthma and allergies became worse. She lost her fourth baby because she was teaching at that time and was sick a lot during the pregnancy.
When she worked as the manager of a gasoline station, the regional manager for retail was impressed with her work. He asked her if she was interested in running her own gas station. Dolores was able to convince her husband to grab this chance, since it was difficult to get a dealership. Although the first reaction was his usual, “I have no money,” he came up with the amount needed. He told her it came from selling a parcel of land she had no idea he had.
Dolores was always careful not to argue about financial matters because her husband would flare up and a big fight would ensue. Dolores was always made to feel she had no right to complain or look for more money other than what was given her since she did not contribute to the family coffers.
Now Dolores was happy with the new development. She thought this new business would give her some financial freedom at least. But to her great disappointment, what she feared most began to happen again. Because Dolores was supposed to be earning from the business, money stopped coming from her husband.
By this time, the children were all in college. All expenses, including tuition, came from the fledgling business. Dolores could not even afford to give herself salary. She remained in the financial drought she had always been in. Despite Dolores’ protestations that at least three years should be given to the business to get its return on investment, her husband would not listen. Worse, he opened credit to the huge corporate business he worked for, which was in the middle of a labor and financial crisis.
Along with all this, Dolores not only had to contend with financial abuse, she was also subjected to emotional, psychological, and verbal abuse on a regular basis. And then, what she was most afraid of finally came. The physical abuse left her literally traumatized, bruised, and trembling with fear. She once told herself that if things came to this, she would surely leave him. But she never did. Instead, she made sure never to cross him.
Throughout their marriage, there had always been other women in her husband’s life. She dared not ask where he was going or where he came from. All he needed to do was raise his voice and Dolores would shut up. He even held it against her that she could not give him a son. Her emotions were in tatters, her self-worth almost nil. She found refuge in caring for her children and found solace in her religion.
Being an educated woman, Dolores knew she could have done things to alleviate her situation. She could have gone to the firm’s management and complained about his immorality. She could have caused a scandal to shame him. She could have gone to claim his salary. She knew there were laws in the Family Code to help her. But she did none of these. Instead she took pains to cover up and show to the world an ideal family, an ideal father and husband. She even concealed her misery, ashamed to let her children know the truth.
When their children finished college, they all left to work and live abroad. Dolores encouraged them for their sake, not realizing that she would be alone. She still held on to the thought that she would spend the rest of her life, and grow old with her husband. She foolishly told herself that, surely, she could hope for security in her old age.
Dolores tried to ignore the virtually non-existent marriage by frequently visiting her children, who by now had families of their own. Her trips were, of course, always shouldered by her children.
Coming home from the U.S. In 2005, she found her husband totally indifferent and impatient toward her, even cruel with his words. He was rarely home, leaving the house at 6 a.m. And coming home at 1 a.m. He had moved out of their bedroom and slept in another, saying he had gotten used to it in her absence. He made it so obvious she was not welcome in the house.
Dolores made several attempts to talk to him, but as usual, he would raise his voice and leave the house in a huff. She then sought out a friend and asked for assistance to find a lawyer who could help her. She also sought financial help from her children, for her husband made sure she was penniless and ignorant and afraid. He always told her not to go around the city, not to receive mail addressed to her, and not to answer the phone, because there were still cases against her from the failed gasoline business.
Her children were happy she was at last taking steps to help herself. But they wanted her away from their father who could harm her. All this time, Dolores kept her door locked every time her husband came home. She gradually packed her things and stashed everything that would fit in boxes. Only then did she realize that her husband never bought a single appliance they used. Each was either given by Dolores’ family, or bought with her earnings from the few times that she worked.
She cried a lot in those two weeks – her feelings of anger, regret, and self-pity overwhelming her. She was desperately trying to get out of the depression that was slowly taking its toll on her body. On the day of her trip, the fever and malaise that simply refused to go away made it difficult, physically and emotionally, for Dolores to get out of bed, get dressed, walk down the stairs, and get out of the house – for the last and final time.
She left Manila 35 years ago to be with her husband – hopeful and so in love. Now, back in the place of her beginnings, Dolores received proof of her husband’s latest infidelity – pictures of her 63-year-old balding husband and his 19-year-old paramour.
Dolores now knows she can seek redress through legal measures – the Family Code and the new Anti-Violence Against Women and Children Act (RA9262). And there is a United Nations international treaty for the protection of women’s rights that she did not know about.
The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was signed and ratified by 180 countries, including the Philippines, in 1981. It has been in force for 25 years!
Article 16 on Marriage and Family states that “women shall have equal rights with regard to ownership, acquisition, management, administration, enjoyment and disposition or property.” It is only one among several articles that seek to enforce equality for women in all aspects of life.
Dolores is trying to pick up the pieces of her life. Things, initially, did not look bright. When she tried to open a bank account using her maiden name, she was told it was not possible. Had she lost her identity too? Every move she made seemed to be stymied by that box called “Status”. She had joined the ranks of undocumented separated women. How many Doloreses are there?
This is exactly where Dolores stands in her life – 60 years old, no job security, homeless, penniless. But with her self-respect and dignity intact, she can manage to smile – even laugh! And the little she earns doing NGO work is hers to spend …. something she has not enjoyed in a long time.
“Life is not a series of events. It is a series of choices – some almost unnoticeable, some heart-wrenching so that it turns your life upside down and inside out,” Dolores tells this friend. “You cannot just let your life happen for you.”
But she is FREE, at last! And not looking back.
Note from the author:
This story was written and published for the Women’s Feature Service for the 25th anniversary campaign of CEDAW, (the United Nations international treaty, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women). Since it is once again the month of women when we also celebrate International Women’s Day on March 7, this story once again finds relevance.
On a more current note, despite the fact that 180 countries have signed and ratified this international treaty, the U.S. is not one of them. There is hope however, with the newly appointed Secretary of State, John Kerry who has publicly declared that CEDAW is close to his heart, will finally find the U.S. as one of the signatories to this treaty.