Roughly five months ago, I had the audacity to call myself a feminist simply because I chose to focus on Feminism as a lens for my Political Theory paper. Back then, I thought it was an easy task since I was a woman, to begin with, thus it would be easier for me to study and understand other women’s struggles. As time passed, and as I was reaching the conclusion of my paper, I realized that I was wrong. Feminism itself proved to be far from flawless, and multiple issues permeated women’s struggles that no single lens could sufficiently explain why women are viewed and treated the way they are today.
In the Philippines, it is claimed that the women’s movement is fast advancing with the plethora of legislation promoting and protecting the rights of women and girls. In fact, a 2018 Global Gender Gap report of the World Economic Forum (WEF) even ranked the Philippines as the country with the narrowest gender gap in Asia. I carried these notions with me when I walked into the gates of Talikala Inc., a Davao City-based Non-Government Organization working with trafficked and prostituted women and girls. As a student journalist, I thought it was just going to be another task of listening to other people’s stories. However, it emerged as an eye-opening experience to the irony between what is colorfully written on paper and what is bleakly happening on the ground.
Ms. Carina T. Sajonia, Program Coordinator of Talikala, Inc., shared her insights regarding the condition of prostituted women and girls in Davao City. According to the data collected by the organization, there are at least 4,000 women in the city who resort to prostitution as their source of income. In some cases, minors as young as 12 years old join the sex trade due to extreme desperation.
“Why does prostitution exist? First, it’s a matter of class. Kung babae ka nga pobre, last option nimo ang pag adto sa prostitution. Plus, naa’y demand side. Duna gyu’y mga tao nga gapangita og lawas sa babae para tagbawon ang ilang uwag,” Sajonia claimed.
“Ang prostitution dili lang hisgutanong panglawas. Kung dili, duna’y nagpalit og dunay nag negosyo. So ang babae diha is the victim,” she added.
The criminalization of prostitution under Article 202 of the Revised Penal Code, along with the treatment of society and the Church on prostitutes as ‘dirty’ and ‘sinful’ further exacerbates the issue. For instance, Sajonia claims that despite prostitution being illegal, the government continues to collect fees from women in the sex trade.
“In Section 17 of Davao City’s Tax Code, it is stated that any person who works in day and night establishments must get occupational permits. So ang babae nga naa sa clubs, ginatawag sila nga taxi dancers, massage attendants, and GROs— taxpayers sila. Kung illegal ang prostitution, ngano mag collect man sila ug fees? Og kung ingon ana, kinsa ang pinakadakong bugaw?” Sajonia expressed.
On the other hand, there are also groups advocating for the legalization of prostitution. For them, only when prostitution is recognized as an occupation can women be truly protected, particularly from health risks such as HIV-Aids.
“Ang uban NGO naga ingon nga liberation daw na sa women kay gihatagan sila ug freedom nga buhaton ang ilang gusto sa ilang lawas. Pero liberation ba gud na nga making sex ka sa bisan kinsa nga laki?” Sajonia argued.
“Dako kaayo ang risk nga naa sa prostitution. Kinabuhi ang imong gitaya diha. Di gud nimo kaila ang imong ka sex. Mao na nga ang uban babae makulatahan o mamatay,” she added.
Regardless of the legal and moral bases of prostitution, the current debate on its legalization sheds light on the complexity of issues surrounding women in the country. While those who support its legalization have substantial claims, groups like Talikala argue that protecting women entails making sure that they have a choice. For most women in the Philippines, entering into prostitution is the result of being pushed to extremes due to poverty and lack of opportunities. Thus, legalization would only exacerbate the issue by having more desperate women enter the institution, risking more human rights violations and sending the women’s movement to a downward spiral.
With the advent of technology, prostitution has also expanded using online platforms to sustain the sex trade. This is increasingly becoming a challenge for groups like Talikala since online prostitution has proven to be harder to track and regulate.
“Naga proliferate gyud gihapon ang prostitution sa Pilipinas, especially with the poverty na ma experience sa mga tao and the technology na readily accessible. Tapos walay grupo nga naga prioritize ani. Kung gusto gyud sa government nga ma-stop ni, hatagan nila ug livelihood ug market ang mga babae,” Sajonia emphasized.
After learning about the plight of prostituted women, I began to entertain the existential question of what it means to be ‘Feminist’. Everything that I had allowed myself to believe slowly crumbled when I discovered the harsh realities experienced by Filipino women. Ultimately, I felt that it did not suffice to be just sympathetic with their struggles. Calling oneself a Feminist entails understanding the many social, economic, and political contexts surrounding women. More importantly, it involves, like the case of Talikala, a commitment to live the struggle with them and to enrich the spirit of women helping their fellow women.