LUGAR LANG| Women’s Bonds Breaking Through

WHEN Jeanette Laurel-Ampog, Executive Director of Talikala, Inc. invited me to emcee their 30th anniversary celebration on August 7, my main reason for accepting was to be acquainted with the work that the organization does. And what a sneak peak it was indeed. It was a true honor to stand amongst iconic feminists of Davao and the women that they have helped free from the bondage of prostitution through their consistent efforts throughout three decades.

 When I first heard of this non-government organization last year, I had been particularly struck by the image of the “talikala” or chains that it has appropriated in order to redefine the situation of prostituted women and children. For them, it serves as a reminder, not of bondage, but of the women’s bonds created through their continued efforts.

 Ms. Lyda Canson, secretary of the Board of Trustees emphasized these bonds as alliances among different sectors: people’s organizations, religious organizations, media, academe, and government. She was particularly proud of how Talikala has “midwifed” several other organizations, foremost of which is Lawig Bubai, a people’s organization of women and children who are survivors of prostitution. Some of its members presented a situationer through dance that ended in a moving embrace with linked arms with the Talikala women, a chain of solidarity.

 Rep. Luzviminda Ilagan, who is currently the Chair of the Board, shared that “It takes a whole community to sustain an institution,” particularly this one, which deals with taboo issues in Philippine society. In fact, the plaques of appreciation they handed out to various organizations and individuals were tangible signifiers of Talikala’s success in engaging the community in advocating to free women and children from sexual exploitation, as well as providing alternative sources of livelihood.

 For a predominantly Catholic country, the issue of prostitution is indeed a taboo because it has illicit sex at its heart. Ironically, it wasn’t a feminist group that awakened me to its evils, but a nun from the Order of St. Jerome. Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, who wrote poetry in17th century Mexico, and asked, “Who is more to blame,/ though either should do wrong?/ She who sins for pay/ Or he who pays to sin?” I was 18 years old when we took up this poem in a class in Latin American literature, and it changed the way I viewed prostitution. It exists because of the men who pay for it.

 Thus, when I first heard the term “prostituted women” some years later, I somehow understood how important it is to use it, even though it’s longer than the old “prostitute.” The old term suggests that it is what a woman or child is, linking the job to her identity. It further suggests that it is work that she has willingly chosen, the way we choose to become a teacher or carpenter. Both are far from the reality that they are, in fact, “prostituted.” They are “put to base and unworthy use,” as defined, or more directly, they are exploited and taken advantage of by those who pay for the service. They are victims in an industry abetted by a patriarchal community, as well as by those of us who do nothing to aid these women and children.

 In the spirit of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, I was happy to learn that Talikala, Inc. has allied with the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary, the Missionaries of the Assumption, and the Marist Sisters of the Philippines in the struggle. In fact, one of the founding mothers of the organization, Cindy O’Donnell, is an American lay missionary, who together with Elizabeth O’Brien, a Filipina social worker, and Felicidad Prieto, a former nightclub dancer, formed the “first bond of love.” She reminded everyone in a video message to rise above class and political differences and “be led by compassion for the other.”

 Compassion, from the Latin compati, meaning “suffer with.” I was fighting back tears half the time in the event, especially when the children of prostituted women under the wings of Balay Banaag performed. As an intermission I felt like it got to the heart of the matter. To see ourselves as like the other and suffer with them somehow in their degradation in order to truly help them is a daunting task that not all women may be able to do. But the women of Talikala have been doing it for thirty years in Mindanao despite the difficulties. And from what I witnessed, they will continue to do it for the next thirty, and until they do not have to do it anymore.

 Follow or message me on Twitter @jhoannalynncruz

Posted in Opinion