By Marivir R. Montebon
New York City – In a quaint gathering of Filipino American leaders at the Unification Theological Seminary library in Manhattan, women leaders in civil society, politics, and media share experiences at persistence in actual ground-work as the way to empower women and improve the quality of life at the village level.
Sponsored by the Filipino International Community of America (FICA), the meeting on March 16, Friday, was an insightful and informative sharing of experiences at development work in the Philippines. The three-hour conversation was something which gave real sense to the high sounding lingo at the United Nations which has been celebrating International Women’s Month in March for the past 43 years.
Merly Barlaan, president of the Women’s Federation for World Peace – Philippines (WFWP), has been living the principle of real empowerment starting from the grassroots. She had been working at the UN New York Headquarters for more than 10 years, and in 2011, she decided to go home to the Philippines to lead in the actual organizing and networking of women and the local communities.
“The real work is on the ground and not in the halls of the UN, ” she quipped. Today, Merly has mobilized enough resources for the construction of a library for children in Montesunting, Bohol, her own birthplace. They have developed a community garden of vegetables for the villagers to be able to consume fresh produce and sell to local market. Lately, the women’s group have also set up a drinking water station for the village in order to respond to their health needs.
Barlaan tapped local women leaders in the province as well as in Manila to put up the necessary funds for these life-changing projects. She quipped: “Development actually begins with consciousness change. Women needed to break the old thoughts of inferiority or fear. If we do that, our creativity just comes out and we can do much. There is actually so much to do at the village level. Women as mothers should be able to embrace our roles and responsibilities which are enormous.”
During the forum, Bohol provincial legislator Alexi Tutor had shared the need for more female politicians that are able to advance the interest of women and work for development at the local level. “I see the need to have more women leaders in government to work on development,” she said.
Tutor noted that the island of Bohol is noted for its vulnerability to sex tourism and child prostitution, mainly because of its port system that is open. She introduced the Anti-child sex tourism law which has set up help desks at the port areas and all of the towns of the province.
Her committee on women and family welfare is also in the thick of organizing events and programs that ensure the creation of groups and activities that stimulate entrepreneurial and environmental action. The Guindolman Women’s Association for Peace and Advancement, for example, is campaigning against the use of plastic shopping bags and are producing bags from recyclable materials to address income generation and environmental conservation.
Dr. Rimalu Serrano, for her part, shared her university’s experience at financial empowerment for women which had always been a long-drawn struggle at discipline, skills, and integrity. Serrano retired as director for academic and related affairs from the Isabela State University, Cauayan Campus.
Barlaan, Tutor, and Serrano were WFWP delegates to the International Women’s Day celebrations at the UN which winded up late this week.
The guests from New York, Dr. Frank Kaufmann and Jacob Smith, who manages a non-profit on compassionate management in the US and select parts in Latin America, commended the work of Filipino women leaders. “Our aspiration would be the equality of everyone before God. Every woman is an expression of God, then we liberate the whole world and bring dignity to the world,” Kaufmann said.
Fil-Am Press Club president Marivir Montebon, who is also the publisher of the OSM! online magazine, lauded the efforts of Barlaan, having taken active part in the conception of the 10-year-rural development plan for the town of Carmen with her. “Personally, I have long wanted to see the Philippines becoming industrialized, starting at the community level. When my twin Merly thought of going back to the Philippines to do what she can for the sake of human development and peace, I was all out for it. As a journalist, I get crazy writing about people doing amazing things that change the world in their own initiative. Journalists are only as good as their news sources are,” she said.
Montebon said that while Filipinos in diaspora, particularly those in the US, face serious problems such as domestic violence and human trafficking, majority of the women in the Philippines continue to be on “survival mode” hence, groundwork for empowerment continues to be the challenge for civil society and government to take.