Women’s activism is in their blood and they pursue it in the streets and within the halls of Congress.
By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
MANILA – They are mothers too, they have taken cared of their children well and are proud of what their children have become. But they are not only mothers to their children, but to many women whose rights they have been fighting for in streets and in Congress.
They could also be described as defiant as they have spent half of their lives in the legal democratic movement fighting for the rights not only of women, but of all people who are oppressed, exploited and whose basic rights have been violated.
True enough, Emmi Amaya De Jesus and Luzviminda Calolot Ilagan, representatives of Gabriela Women’s Party, have become the voice of marginalized women in Congress.
Emmi De Jesus: Physics major turned activist
De Jesus, a Physics major graduate from the University of the Philippines is the eldest among seven children. Coming from a not so well-off family, De Jesus strived hard in her studies. She graduated as salutatorian from elementary school and completed secondary school at the Manila Science High School.
It was during the dark days of Martial Law when De Jesus became a student in UP. She became a student activist and an organizer of trade unions. “She honed her organizing skills as a student and had the opportunity to work with trade unions and learn more about the exploitation and oppression of Filipino laborers,” read an article about De Jesus at the GWP’s website.
De Jesus was not spared from the brutality of martial law. In 1977, while putting stickers in jeepneys as part of the Labor day protest action, De Jesus, along with other colleagues, was arrested by police officers riding the public utility vehicle. While in detention, De Jesus was subjected to mental and psychological torture as she heard the sufferings of other activists who were being tortured. “This arrest exposed Emmi to the brutality of the military and martial law.”
De Jesus became part of the women’s movement in 1983. She was one of the founding members of the Samahan ng Kababaihang Nagkakaisa or Samakana, formed in September 1983. Samakana was then comprised of women from various sectors, but majority were women from urban poor communities. On Oct. 23 of the same year, Samakana organized an all-women-march participated in by 10,000 women demanding an end to the Marcos dictatorship.
From there, De Jesus’ involvement with the women’s movement continued and she became part of Gabriela, an alliance of women’s organizations established in 1984. She became the coordinator of Gabriela’s campaigns department and also did organizing work among women professionals, women students and women workers. She held different positions in the organization and was elected as its secretary general until 2009.
She was nominated as the second representative of the Gabriela Women’s Party in 2009. “She accepted the challenge of a new avenue in pushing for change that catered to the interest of marginalized and disadvantaged women.”
Luz Ilagan: Educator, women’s right advocate and public servant
Born in Daliao, Toril, Davao City, Ilagan is not only a women’s rights advocate but also an educator and was once a public servant before she became the representative of GWP in Congress.
Ilagan was described as among Toril’s prized citizens. She was first honorable mention of the Daliaon Central Elementary School and graduated as salutatorian in high school. In college, Ilagan graduated as cum laude at the Ateneo de Davao College with a Bachelor of Arts degree, major in English. Ilagan’s education did not end there; she pursued Master of Arts Candidacy in Literature also in Ateneo de Davao University and then earned MA units in Public Administration at UP Manila.
She immediately worked as a teacher after graduation at Ateneo where she held various administrative positions, from Coordinator of the English Department, Chairperson of the Humanities Division, to Member of the Ateneo’s Board of Trustees. At present, she is a consultant of the Ateneo de Davao’s Mass Communication Department and remains a part-time instructor for Public Speaking, Communication Arts, and Public Relations. She is also Director of The Learning Atrium, an institution providing training courses for a wide range of subjects and fields.
Even when Ilagan was already in Congress, she still considered teaching as her principal vocation. In fact, Ilagan goes around Mindanao and teaches English to other high school and college instructors under the Ateneo’s extension program. She also regularly conducts Gender Sensitivity Trainings, and seminars on reproductive rights, and similar topics to firms, organizations, and cooperatives all over the island.
“Correspondingly, former students, who are now professionals and have had the opportunity to work with her as a peer, still refer to Ma’am Luz as the best English teacher they ever had,” read the GWP’s website.
Ilagan became part of the women’s movement during Martial Law when she became a convener and then later headed the Women’s Alliance for True Change – Mindanao, an alliance of 32 women’s organizations in different parts of Mindanao. The alliance later affiliated with Gabriela. Ilagan became the chairwoman of Gabriela-Mindanao in 1984 while her husband, a human rights lawyer, was also chairman of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan)-Mindanao. She continued as chairwoman of Gabriela-Mindanao despite the incarceration of her husband in 1985, when she was left alone to raise their four sons.
Ilagan also headed several non-government institutions, such as the Solidarity Action Group for Indigenous Peoples (Sagip), TALIKALA Foundation, Purple Rose Committee, Media Mindanao News Service, and Development Educational Media Services. She was also an officer and maintains membership in different organizations, like the Mindanao Interfaith Peoples Coalition (MIPC), Kanlungan Crisis Center, Women Studies Association of the Philippines, Women Network Group, Women’s Studies and Resource Center, Ateneo Task Force on Reproductive Health, Gender, and Sexuality, Family Planning Organization of the Philippines, Dona Carmen Locsin Foundation, ABAG Foundation, and the Initiatives for International Dialogue (IID), to name a few.
Ilagan also represented the country in many international conferences on women. In 1985, she was a delegate to the UN International Conference on Women, held in Nairobi, Kenya. The following year, she was tasked to be the resource person for a speaking tour on the situation of Filipino women, travelling to Holland, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Rome, Florence, and London.
She also became a delegate in the International Conference on Women and Development in 1989, in West Berlin, Germany. And in 1991, Ilagan was a speaker in the Europe-wide Conference of Migrant Women, held in Barcelona, Spain, and in the Germany-wide Conference of Migrant Women.
Other similar international conferences in which she participated in were: the Women-Linking Conference, in Jakarta, Indonesia (1993); the Women Conference in Bangkok, Thailand (1994); International Conference on Violence, Abuse and Citizenship, in London (1996); and the International Conference on AIDS (1999).
Ilagan did research work on women issues. She produced major studies that are now considered as references to contemporary research on Women in the Philippines. Among her major research studies conducted are the Effects of the Modernization Process on Women Working in a Banana Plantation in Davao del Norte (1975), Perceived Effects of Farming Practices of Banana Plantations on the Health of Women of Little Panay, Davao Del Norte (1992), and Sexual Harassment in the Campus (1996).
Ilagan’s work for the emancipation of women gained recognition nationally and internationally. In 1992, the Ventures International gave Ilagan the Mae Carvell Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Upliftment of the Status of Women. Her alma mater also conferred on her Ateneo’s highest honor, the Blue Knight Award for Community Service and as Outstanding Spokesperson for Women in 1995. She was also a recipient of the Soroptimist International’s Women Helping Women Award in 1999.
“Proud as she is of these honors bestowed upon her, the ultimate merit, she claims, is the knowledge that from her efforts, more women will have become empowered to oppose violence and abuse, to rise up against exploitation and oppression, and be future partners in the continuing effort to liberate women.”
Before Ilagan became a representative of women in Congress, she has already served as public servant in her hometown where she became councilor of the first district of Davao City from 1998 to 2001. “She served the city as councilor and served it well.”
While Ilagan was councilor, she chaired the Committee on Education, Science and Technology, as well as the Committee on Women and Family Relations. She was also Vice Chairperson of the Committee on Environment and a member of the Committee on Ethics, the local school board, Personnel Selection Board, and Child Minding Center Board. She also became Secretary of the Davao River Conservation Council and a Consultant of the Department of Health – Region XI, for Women’s Health Advocacy.
As councilor, Ilagan was instrumental in organizing livelihood projects for women in poor communities. According to the GWP, the cooperatives she helped set up then are very much alive to this day and are engaged in the manufacture of handicrafts and other products.
However, after her term ended in 2001, Ilagan did not to run again. Her decision drew mixed responses from the public. Some agreed to her decision not to run again for another term as city councilor while others were dismayed, saying that a single term was too short and Davao needed more honest and sincere public servants like Ilagan.
But prior to being elected as city councilor from 1998 to 2001, she was appointed by the late president Cory Aquino as city councilor after the 1986 Edsa uprising. This was in recognition of her efforts in leading the struggle of the people against the dictatorship. However, when elections were held in 1988, Ilagan chose not to run for the position.
“She recalls the challenges she faced in her first stint as a government official. Despite the fact that the highest position in the land was occupied by a woman, she observed, women councilors were not that empowered, relegated to minor roles in governance and the more trivial concerns, like heading the city’s Beautification Committee. She felt that she would be more effective serving the people through her NGO work and chose not to run.”
Not only activists, but mothers too
It was not easy working full time to liberate women and be a mother to your children. But De Jesus and Ilagan were able to do both. How?
De Jesus’s husband supported her decision to organize and mobilize women. While she continued with her work with Gabriela, her husband took the responsibility of being the breadwinner of the family. De Jesus made it a point to expose her children to her work.
Being with the people’s movement is demanding with all the meetings, mass actions, and forums to attend.
When De Jesus was an organizer in Gabriela, she brought her children whenever possible; be it in the community, in meetings, or in street actions.
“My almost two decades of working in Gabriela have been fruitful. With my three children now grown-up and all married, with two grandchildren (one each from my two daughters), I take pride that they know me not just as their mother but as an activist. My being in Gabriela is a way of life, a 24/7 thing, applying our principles in practical life,” De Jesus said.
Ilagan has four sons who are firm believers in gender equality. As parents, Ilagan and her husband’s strong sense of patriotism and service to the common people has served as a good example to their children. They appreciated their parents’ work. And as a mother, her son has this to say, “She was our pillar of strength. During those days when our father was in prison, she almost single-handedly raised the family and yet continued her activism.”
Struggle for the emancipation of women continues
Even before the GWP won seats in Congress in 2004, their representative in Bayan Muna Partylist, Liza Maza who was then secretary general of Gabriela, had pushed for the passage of pro-women legislation when the multisectoral partylist group first joined and won seats in 2001. Legislations such as anti-Trafficking in Persons Act and the Anti-Violence against Women and Children Act in the 12th Congress were passed.
During the 2007 elections, the GWP placed fourth and had two representatives Maza and Ilagan in the 14th Congress. In 2010, GWP again got two seats in Congress, with De Jesus as the second representative.
Together, Ilagan and De Jesus continued to work for the interests of women and children. They have filed and pushed for bills and resolutions such as House Resolution 208 calling for a Moratorium on Demolitions, House Bill 1384 – Gender Education in the Workplace, HB 1385 – Legitimation of Children Born out of Wedlock, HR 1540 – Convention for Migrant Workers, HB 5331 – Financial assistance to Distressed OFWs, HR 1194 – Investigation on Implementation of K+12, HB 4566 – Prohibiting all retired and active military and police personnel from being appointed to GOCCs, HB 3962 – declaring International Women’s day March 8 as a non-working holiday, HB 1800 – increasing the maternity leave from 60 to 120 days, among others.
The GWP also authored the Comprehensive Reproductive Health Bill before all similar bills were consolidated, was passed and now called as the Responsible Parenthood Law. During the deliberations on the bill, Gabriela remained firm in its position that the main point of the reproductive health bill is to provide poor women with access to reproductive health care and not as a population control measure.
The GWP also co-authored bills such as HB 6613 seeking to repeal the Anti-Cybercrime Law, HB 374 or Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill, among others.
There many more battles to conquer, and for the women’s representatives in Congress, the struggle has and will always continue until women, children and the people are free from oppression and exploitation.