Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Talking in Bisaya with a smirk on his face, President Duterte said, during a speech before former communist rebels, that soldiers in Mindanao should shoot female rebels in the vagina so the women become ‘useless.’
This remark became the jump off point of the artist Nikki Luna’s recent work at 1335Mabini: a white aluminium panel dotted with M4 bullet holes that depict a concept of a woman’s vagina — one of her many works that address and respond to women’s issues.
It’s also not new to those who follow her work and advocacies that she conducts art therapy workshops in disenfranchised communities across the Philippines. During the Marawi crisis, for instance, Luna went to the city during and after the siege to lead these art programs for evacuees, particularly for women and children.
“That's something that I've been doing for years. And I'm always faced with that dilemma when I'm asked, ‘How else can you help?’” she says. “Kasi I have to be present eh. That's true, I always have to be there.”
She felt she needed to do a project that could be passed on, one that could easily have a ripple effect in communities affected by human rights abuses the most. She planned on starting a women-centered group that would host community meets, but as the #MeToo and the Women’s March movement grew, a number of forum-based groups also launched, so she thought it would be more productive to think of another platform.
Early last year, the Asian Cultural Council awarded her a research grant in New York, where she was able to have more in-depth studies on feminist artists and movements. While there, she thought of an idea. “I liked hanging out in the park in Washington Square, lying down on the grass, and thinking,” she recalls. “And that's where I would think about writing a book.”
Luna then wrote three children’s books: the first one talks about owning one’s body, the second about value of one’s self not based on beauty, and the third on how boys can be part of the conversation about girls’ and women’s rights and issues.
All throughout this process, Luna repeatedly highlights that she wouldn’t have been able to produce the books without the help of various women: filmmaker Jaja Arumpac, Gantala Press’ Faye Cura, artist Lara De Los Reyes, and UN Women’s Chang Jordan. They formed Power In Her Story (PIHS), a publishing house that aims to educate and inform readers on the issues that inherently plague patriarchal societies.
The publishing group's book series is illustrated by Julienne Dadivas, and Luna says the only directive she told Dadivas was to come up with illustrations that would not alienate either a child who speaks English or a child who speaks Tagalog or Bisaya or any other language. These illustrations, she says, complemented well with the simplicity of the message. In the first book, “I Love My Body,” the message is clear and simple: your body is yours and yours alone.
“I wrote it thinking that maybe some of them don't know how to read or they try or it's hard,” she explains. “So it has to be read easily. That even their parents can read it, who have a hard time reading.”
Luna says that it was important that they start on the ownership of one’s body because sexual assault has been one of the most prevalent cases of abuse perpetrated on women in the Philippines. A report by the Center of Women’s Resources revealed that one person is raped per hour in the country. The Philippine Statistics Authority also reported in 2016 that there have been 4,605 cases of rape, acts of lasciviousness, and attempted and incestuous rape.
“Now, the more popular is cyber sex or pornography. And they feel like they're not doing anything to their children when they let it happen because it's on the screen lang naman. Isn't that frustrating?” Luna says. She explains that the PIHS group has seen a lack in gender sensitivity programs and sexual education or any kind of material that would simply inform girls and boys the right to their own bodies.
She and Chang Jordan, both students of UP’s Women and Development Studies, have always done work on the ground and the stories they have heard presented a clear problem on the way children are raised, what they are exposed to, and how their issues are dealt with.
“If you can just instill in them what is theirs and that even if the closest people in their lives cannot have a say with it, I want them to get that chance,” she says. “It might be a simple book but I want them to have that chance.”
PIHS employs a buy-one-give-one model, so for every book in English that is sold, a book translated in Tagalog by Gantala Press’ Faye Cura will be given to marginalized communities. Having beneficiaries in rural and urban poor areas is paramount to the group because even when sexual abuse knows no class or social standing, poor women don’t necessarily have the access to get out of their circumstances. “A lot of us go through sexual abuse in many layers and forms, so I think I wanted it to connect to everyone,” Luna explains.
The presence of women’s initiatives like PIHS is part of a global reckoning against sexual harassment and abuse. However, the alarming and increasing number of cases that afflict Filipinos, especially Filipino girls, is a testament to how the fight to protect and defend women’s rights may be a Sisyphean nightmare.
But, it is also necessary to recognize that while people in power or influence may be spewing out words that demean and diminish the female experience, there is considerable strength in a group of women banding together to listen to girls’ stories.
“When they share their own stories of brutalities, of abuse, the first thing that happens is you doubt the person,” Luna says. “You doubt just because she's a girl, when you should find the power in her voice and start listening.”
“I Love My Body” will be available on April 18 through the Power In Her Story website.