happy thoughts and worthy causes

Archive for September, 2019

To Be Golden

I will be turning “golden” in a few months and I plan to write some-sort of a memoir/autobiography at this stage in my life. When I turned 49 last May, I promised myself a personal project to would mark that milestone. I was seriously going to chronicle my five decades worth of existence with a compilation of travel essays, advocacy articles, and family blogs. There would also probably be some poetry, love letters, and technical writing thrown in too. I would try to capture everything that seems to define me for now, or at least approximate the kind of person I have turned out to be. I hope the result would be something I can be proud of.

The first decade about my childhood years would be about my family, our ancestral home, summer vacations, and school days punctuated by the Girl Scouts, piano recitals and speed reading lessons. I’ll probably talk about what it’s like to be from a large family, growing up with many siblings, the joy of family pets, annual clan reunions, and even our resident ghost. I plan to call this chapter “Foundations of History”. My especially “turbulent” teenage years was a decade of transitions, where changes became opportunities to “reinvent” myself. After years of laying-low, I decidedly tried to “excel” during my senior year in high school and maximize the freedom of university life when I moved away to UP Los Banos. I will call this portion, the “Promise of Reinvention”, as my secret world of books and writing moved to the reality of balancing academics with sorority life. The next decade as a young adult was no less tumultuous as I underwent continuous evolution as a person – initially as a Makati office girl and then as a law student at UP Law. This can be aptly named the “Emergence of Possibilities” as the power of metamorphosis slowly took shape. I consider my 30s just as dynamic as the previous decade, but more or less determinative of where I was headed as I became increasingly known for my sectoral advocacies for women, children, migrant workers and sexual minorities. I also managed to pursue my “first love” which was “writing” and enrolled in an MA course in UP Diliman while continuing to contribute to various publications. I would like to think of this decade as the “Breakthrough Years”. Throughout my activism and advocacy work, I discovered my communication skills were not limited to writing, but also extended to public speaking and capacity-building. In addition, my sectoral expertise expanded further to include the elderly/ageing concerns, Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) and even solo parents. Eventually, people who have heard of or experienced trainings under me recommended me for teaching positions. And so, I found myself teaching with the University of the Philippines Open University (UPOU) system. A few more personal upheavals came to pass, but there were areas in my life which sort of “calmed down” as I approached middle-age. A new committed relationship brought with it additional “family duties”, and my most challenging role yet is been parenting a precocious little girl nowadays. So in essence, I am currently in my “Loving Years”.

These past four months I have tried to gather and consolidate some earlier essays and blogs, which were mostly travelogues, tributes to family members, and a few serious advocacy pieces. I still have so much to document as far as travels are concerned, and maybe some candid takes on my own existence especially when it comes to my love life. In the meantime, I think I shall read some more Anthony Bourdain, Pico Iyer, Andrew MaCarthy, Michael Crichton and Frank McCourt.




An Accidental Activist

I never planned on having any advocacies. At my eighteenth birthday party which was attended by a majority of the resident Upsilonian brods and Sigma Deltan sisses, my elder sister Annette, the original family activist and once-a-upon-a-time League of Filipino Students (LFS) Sec-Gen, kidded Bong Manlulu ‘85, UPLB campus activist and survivor of the Mendiola Massacre, that for all his persuasion skills, he was not able to recruit me to the “cause”. However, they agreed that my personality was not the “rah-rah” type anyway and left it at that.

When I applied to law school and was eventually accepted at the UP College of Law, friends and family both wondered and worried about me if I was really cut out for the job. I was in my sophomore year when a spate of horrific crimes began hogging the headlines. One of them was the murder of our own sorority sister, Eileen ’90 and brod Allan ’90. What seemed like abstract concepts and theories became painfully real to me as I reflected on the loss of their young lives. My once haphazard interest in the Family Code and Presidential Decree 603, otherwise known as the Child and Youth Welfare Code, was reawakened and lead me to write a paper on child abuse. I didn’t know then that I was already embarking on a journey of Child Rights and Women’s Welfare protection.

As luck would have it, I became a working student halfway thought my junior year and as a student assistant at the UP Law Center, I was tasked to help in some research regarding domestic violence laws. At this point, it was quite helpful to have that unique insight into gender issues having been a member of a close-knit community of women through my sorority. The draft document we produced eventually became the basis or predecessor of the Women in Intimate Relations bill and the Anti-Violence against Women and Children (VAWC) law. Around this time, I was also introduced to the network of women’s groups and began volunteering with some Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Years later, I would be on the other side of the fence, as part of my day-job with DSWD, I would be involved in the crafting of official statements of support and controversial position papers for several landmark Women-Friendly Laws like the Reproductive Health law and the Magna Carta of Women.

Throughout law school, I kept my connections with these Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), various NGOs criss-crossing paths as we moved from child rights to women’s welfare to general human rights concerns. I knew that just like at university where Sigma Delta Phi never really existed in a vacuum, good relations and partnerships were vital to support worthwhile endeavors. When I joined DSWD, I handled sectoral issues of women, children, Senior Citizens and Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) as well as the occasional United Nations treaty or human rights convention, and these previous connections proved very useful.

As I reviewed numerous bills pertaining to women’s welfare, foremost in my mind were the images of my sorority sisters, how these measures could protect young women like them from sexual violence or exploitation, how these bills could ensure better social, political or economic participation, if not actual empowerment. In a way, I remembered that such was the purpose of sororities too. Much more than mere social support groups, sororities like Sigma Delta Phi was a venue for developing knowledge and skills in young women, providing them access to opportunities to showcase and further hone their talents to ultimately be of benefit to others. This objective can clearly be seen in the variety of projects and activities we were always encouraged to embark on even as mere teenagers in college.

Yet even with my legal education, I had to learn to develop a social welfare lens and with the help on social worker mentors, began to apply a critical balancing act of sectoral interests and technical legalese. This entailed the careful formulation of social policies which would serve the greater good of the public, and I was tasked to craft policy papers on sensitive topics such HIV testing for minors, revisiting the penal provisions on the age of sexual consent, corporal punishment and age-appropriate sex education for children and youth. To augment my knowledge, I touched based with youth groups and student organizations, agreeing to serve as Resource Person in many of their school-sanctioned learning activities outside of my regular office hours. One of my most memorable talks was when I returned to my Alma Mater UPLB upon the invitation of UPLB Babaylan, and was very happy to see an LGBT Youth support group now formally organized and officially recognized as a legitimate student organization. I am proud to note that these combined efforts to address intersecting and cross-cutting issues pertaining to kids eventually resulted in the passage of the Anti-Bullying Act and the amendment of the DepEd Child Protection Policy to cover discrimination and bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity which affected the Right to Education of many children.

* * *

When I first moved from the DSWD Legal Service to its Policy Development and Planning Bureau, I was unfortunately straddled with the burden of handling a very problematic sector – the senior citizens. No one wanted the assignment because seniors were known to file complaints and waste your whole day with continuous phone calls and endless letters. But as we have learned even from our neophyte days, no challenge is too big as not to at least give it a try. Borrowing from my agribusiness background lingo, even weeds can bloom where they grow, so I gave it a shot. Fortunately, I once again called upon the skills I developed as a junior sis in the sorority where even the most outrageous fund-raising ideas had to take shape and produce the results your Grand Archon requires of you.

Like my involvement with the women’s sector, my sectoral work for the senior citizens did not stop at my regular day-job with DSWD. Often times, I would utilize my weekends and vacation leaves to conduct trainings and seminars for elderly groups, LGUs, or even private sector establishments to ensure uniform and consistent application of the senior citizens law, especially on discount privileges. I also took advantage of the opportunity to engage other government agencies, educational institutions as well as professional associations, who can assist in furthering elderly welfare through the conduct of researches or the development of new, responsive programs. These efforts lead to the posting of standard notices on the application of the senior citizens’ discount privileges among businesses, established a definite monitoring and complaints system by identified government bodies, especially the LGU’s Office of Senior Citizens Affairs (OSCA), and the issuance of clearer rules and proper guidelines by respective national government agencies like the DOH, FDA, DTI and DA, the LTFRB and even water utility companies and electric service providers.

Wherever did I get such energy and passion? But such was our training in the Sigma Delta Phi; after attending our classes, studying and taking exams, we were expected to participate fully in sorority activities after class hours. The older sisses always said that when you strongly believe in the relevance and importance of what you are doing, you will always have the energy and the time to accomplish what needs to be done.

My involvement in the women’s groups and their gender issues then introduced me to the LGBT Community whose growing visibility was becoming more evident. Before I knew it, I was at the forefront of a burgeoning LGBT Rights activism that was purposefully going beyond HIV/AIDS issues and no longer hiding behind “general” gender and sexuality issues of women.

I never wanted to be a ”leader” and all I wanted was to do my part, whatever of added-value I can share. My years in the Sigma Delta Phi instilled in me a sense of responsibility to the point of not being afraid to step up and exhibit the kind of leadership the situation requires when the occasion calls for it. So while initial LGBT activism merely took advantage of “alternative classroom learning experience sessions” and “media interviews”, I was one of those who suggested it was time we engage government institutions and use official mechanisms to put forth our concerns. This idea gave birth to the LGBT legislative advocacy and lobbying group, LAGABLAB, whose primary task was to draft a legislative agenda for the LGBT Community and lead in the lobbying for these bills in Congress. As a founding member, I also served as its Policy Advocacy and Research Committee Head for some time.

Sadly, LGBTs have also been typecast and boxed into certain occupations, and we agreed that we needed to have greater representation and visibility from other areas and professions. Ultimately, I decided to maximize my own legal background and modify our kind of advocacy by focusing on legal avenues. This resulted in my establishment of a new LGBT advocacy group, RAINBOW RIGHTS PROJECT (R-Rights), which was composed of lawyers and law students who aim to consolidate legal references and materials to push for LGBT rights protection, develop fellow LGBTs through a paralegal program to capacitate them about their basic human rights and what are the official and legal remedies available, and identify relevant topics pertaining to LGBTs in particular and look into the possibility of recommending appropriate policies and laws to address these issues. R-RIGHTS became recognized by the alternative lawyering network and human rights groups coalition as the first and only developmental law NGO catering to sexual minorities. During my stint as its Founding President, we were able to connect with and capacitate various LGBT groups around the Philippines like Baguio, Cebu, Davao, Cagayan de Oro, even Zamboanga and Sulu. These connections and alliances enabled us to have more visibility outside MM-NCR and consolidate our national presence as the Philippine LGBT Community as a whole. These efforts would also pave the way for Ang LADLAD when the Community decided to give the Partylist System a try for greater political participation and actual representation in Congress. And once again, I was thrust into the leadership role as one of the Trustees and Officers, eventually becoming a partylist nominee.

While our advocacy then was quite new, we were mindful of learning from the strategies and tactics which worked for the other sectors and human rights groups. My attitude then was similar to the coaching and mentoring techniques I observed during my years in the sorority – beginning from the indoctrinations of our “masters” to the senior sisses taking each of us under their wing. There was always much to learn and one must keep an open mind. It was then I realized that the concept of seniority had a special purpose to play – never meant to be abusive or oppressive, it was a matter of “succession” training and developing capable “second-liners.” The respect and deference we owe to those who went before us, blazing the path, so that the next generation can move forward and enjoy the benefits of such bravery is of great value.

But while we adopt the knowledge and practices as they are passed down to us, we also inject our own learnings as added-value and such is our indoctrinations to new neophytes. For me, I anchored my arguments strongly on women’s rights and welfare, where the concepts of gender and sexuality used to explain marginalization, subjugation, and oppression were the very same used against sexual minorities.

I believe that while it is good to be part of a homogenous community, there can also be Unity within Diversity. It was in the Sigma Delta Phi that I first learned to appreciate and value DIVERSITY, that the variety of personalities that comprise an organization can be a source of strength too. I was taught in the sorority, as early as the Tea Party and screening/Presentation, that each of us can bring something to the table because of our own uniqueness. We have different talents and skills, ideas and opinions even, but what is important is that we practice mutual respect, and as much as possible, extend that to the kind of acceptance the concept of Grand Sisterhood demands.

It is my LGBT rights advocacy which has unexpectedly taken me to the international stage as well. Filipino LGBT advocates have long lead the way in LGBT human rights promotion in Asia. I never expected my participation in regional human rights conferences to represent LGBTs activists as Human Rights Defenders would bring me to Geneva to speak at the United Nations Human Rights Council. After we successfully lobbied for an international human rights report on the status of LGBTs or “people of diverse sexualities” around the world, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called for the continued efforts of monitoring the status of LGBTs worldwide, legitimizing us as a valid sector worthy of attention. Our biggest accomplishment as a coalition of LGBT human rights advocates around the world was the recommendation of the establishment of an Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE), which we put forth as a special procedure or human rights mechanism in the absence of a specific treaty or convention.

Recently, I have had the pleasure of seeing some of my hard work pay off. The earlier versions of the Senior Citizens Act has since been amended to give more benefits to our Filipino elderly, expanding discounts to free services, financial assistance and universal health coverage. The Centenarians Act was also passed to recognize our 100 year olds and award them with a special financial assistance. The original Magna Carta of PWDs was likewise amended to expand their benefits for clearer implementation. But most of all, our proposed national agency for the elderly sector has recently been passed in the form of the newly established “National Commission for Senior Citizens” and bills to address elderly abuse have been filed in Congress since we raised this as an emerging trend. While I am happy to have been instrumental in passage of the VAWC law, the Magna Carta of Women and the Repro Health law, I have yet to see the amendment of the Solo Parents Act which we have tried to revisit and the expansion of the women’s crisis centers protocols for various Gender-Based Violence.

So I am not done yet. As a Sigma Deltan, it is incumbent upon all of us to continue doing relevant, if not important work for society; to always be at our best as a reflection of the excellence of our beloved sorority and to be worthy of its great name. We were never taught to rest on our laurels and simply rely on the prestigious reputation of Sigma Delta Phi. Instead, we are expected to be the bright points of light in our respective communities, wherever we may be.