How sexism keeps Filipinas poor

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Despite being named as one of the most gender-equal countries in the world, the Philippines still has a long way to go in dismantling socialized gender roles which, though seemingly innocuous, lie at the root of our continued poverty. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Here in the Philippines, where catcalling is a daily occurrence, and where politicians still think it’s acceptable to make misogynistic jokes in public, sexism seems to be a norm that Filipinas still have to contend with today.

Despite being named as one of the most gender-equal countries in the world, the Philippines still has a long way to go in dismantling socialized gender roles. Tradition dictates that to be a “babae” is to be the “ilaw ng tahanan”; while the man is expected to provide for his family, the woman’s primary role is in the home. And while some may argue that Filipinas today have come a long way because they are now able to carve their own career paths, this doesn’t change the fact that they are still expected to step into the role of homemaker after work hours. (Add the fact that when we say “yaya,” we imagine a woman and never a male nanny.)

For many Filipinos, this is the norm we’ve grown up with. However, what we do not understand is that these institutionalized expectations of women, plus all the value judgements we attach to them, lie at the root of our continued poverty.

The burden of motherhood

Because poverty is in essence a deprivation of our basic needs, this exclusion from resources often begins with the existence of inequality. For many Filipinas, this inequality begins with their identity as women, where the discourse at home and in school is governed by traditional myths and the powerful tool of shame.

Many young Filipinas, therefore, form incomplete and erroneous perceptions of their bodies, with the lack of proper discussions on sex and childbirth. Some problematic notions that still make their way among Filipinas are the beliefs that jumping after sex will prevent pregnancy, and that taking a bath during your period leads to infertility. Society, especially in the Philippines, also still holds the notion of virginity in high regard, and girls who are sexually deviant are labelled as “immoral,” and therefore to be excluded from respectable company.

These traditional gender roles also affect the future of young Filipinas with regards to their education. The stark difference is exemplified by this 2017 survey on out-of-school youth done by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). According to the survey, almost 60 percent of the girls who dropped out of school had to do so because of “marriage or family matters.” And for the boys who dropped out? The reason cited the most was a "lack of interest" in school (36.5 percent).

How then will young Filipina mothers rise above the poverty line if their chances at stable employment are endangered not only by the lack of a diploma, but also by the costs of child-rearing and other healthcare problems unique to women? And even greater than the threat of destitution is the threat to the young mother’s life. For Filipinas impregnated before the age of 18, maternal mortality poses a greater risk than for their older counterparts.

The homemaker’s unpaid labor

For many Filipino families, the burden of parenthood is still viewed as a woman’s job. This ties into the concept of poverty because of women’s position in our country’s capitalist system. For the system to function, workers — who form the backbone of our economy — have to be birthed and cared for. And who performs this duty, for free at home? Our women. Essentially, the hours Filipinas spend on housework constitute unpaid labor, saving employers a load of money, but keeping women in poverty.

It also doesn’t help that 31 percent of working age women reported to the Department of Labor and Employment that family duties were preventing them from engaging in work. And if they do manage to find employment, they are offered unstable jobs in the informal sector, often contractual. A relatively large number of women in the informal sector are also household heads, and are the main source of income for their families.

Sexism does not end once a woman enters the workplace. According to a survey by the job search site Monster, Filipinas are asked about their plans to start their own families during job interviews, demonstrating that employers use this to decide whether to hire women or not. Many women also felt that they weren’t being offered promotions because of their gender, that their bosses used patronizing language or talked down to them, and that they were labelled negatively (e.g. bossy).

Beyond discrimination, the gender pay gap is apparently still a reality in our country. According to the 2017 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, wage equality in the Philippines has worsened compared to 2016, causing us to lose our footing by three spots in ranking.

Addressing both sexism and poverty

But like majority of deep-rooted societal issues, sexism and poverty exist not in a linear sequence but in a cycle. The existence of poverty likewise exacerbates sexism in the Philippines, as proven by statistics from the Philippine Commission on Women. If a woman comes from a poor household or with lower educational attainment, there is a higher possibility of her bearing more children than a wealthier, college-educated woman.

Likewise, poverty is also seen in the lack of access to education, including education on women's rights and gender equality. When the youth fail to receive proper gender education from their schools or mentors, harmful sexist stereotypes or perceptions continue to be inculcated. This includes textbooks that still label fathers' and mothers' roles in the household, as well as the persistence of local myths on womanhood and childbirth.

To therefore uplift the lives of Filipinas, sexism and poverty have to be simultaneously addressed, and we are fortunately seeing active efforts from the government. We have the Philippine Magna Carta of Women, in which our government acknowledges the need to abolish unequal structures that perpetuate inequality. We also have the Philippine Commission on Women, which is our government's primary policy-making and coordinating body for women's rights. They are responsible for ensuring that the rights of Filipinas are always included in national development plans, and for running pilot projects for women. Last year, the Senate also approved a bill granting a 120-day paid leave for expectant mothers.

However, there is still a need to strengthen the implementation of the law, including easier access to reproductive health services and stronger anti-sexual harassment campaigns. Also, programs have to be further cascaded into local institutions, so that Filipinas get direct services in their own barangays, such as legal and security services for victims of violence and livelihood programs for mothers.

Sexism and poverty exist not in a linear sequence but in a cycle. The existence of poverty exacerbates sexism in the Philippines, as proven by statistics from the Philippine Commission on Women.

The private sector can also do its part by recognizing the overall welfare of their female employees not only as workers but as human beings. This starts with demolishing and replacing sexist policies in the workplace with structures that ensure safety and equal opportunity for all genders.

Furthermore, companies should do well to be more sensitive towards the “double shift” of their female employees who also fulfill the role of homemaker after hours. Companies should take this into consideration when assessing employee performance, and should also take a more compassionate stance by ensuring proper work-life balance instead of maximizing workers' hours for profit.

And beyond recognizing the double shift, we also have to challenge this very assumption. More modern gender education has to be taught in our schools, to recognize the changing roles of men and women, and to free our girls from the idea that their careers are only possible because men “allow” them to work on top of their responsibilities at home. Today, we also see individuals coming together to challenge this status quo: by demanding men share in the burden of housework, by changing the gender ratio in high office, and by encouraging young girls who want to pursue careers in male-dominated fields.

So there is still hope for women in the Philippines; we just need to institutionalize it using the concerted efforts of all sectors. For if we are to realize a Philippines free from poverty and sexism, we have to not only help women get equal opportunities as men inside the system; we also have to change the system itself into one that is based on the foundation that all Juans and Juanas are created equal.