Our first day in Philippines began with a home cooked meal of fish and crab. Jérôme (my partner of five years) and I left our home in Toronto and travelled for 24 hours straight to land in my parent’s hometown in Bulacan, Malolos (about two hours north of Manila). I immediately gave into my jet lag and went to bed. Jérôme, the more resolute of us two, stayed awake and ended up at my uncle’s next door where five of my Titos (uncles) were drinking. They greeted him warmly to their Man Table, handed him a San Miguel Light, and insisted he help himself to the ‘pulutan’ (finger foods) on the table. Immediately, they involved him in their conversation.
“So Jérôme, do you have a second girl yet?” My uncle asked with a sly smile.
The rest of my uncles eagerly awaited Jérôme’s response (no). They were as hungry as paparazzi for a juicy story and disappointed at the outcome. And that’s it. Within five minutes, they made it very clear what kind of men they were.
Men and Women
When you step into a family party in the Philippines, you’ll catch yourself in the middle of one grand fiesta. You’ll see children of all ages screaming and running about, their exasperated mothers trailing behind them while someone belts out a karaoke ballad in the background. You’ll also see the women running the show, taking care of the food and the guests and the cleaning, while the men sit and drink at a table separate from the rest of the party. In this corner, crude jokes and beer are allowed (and women and children, implicitly, are not).
When Jérôme returned and told me what they asked, my god, I was so angry I couldn’t see straight. How dare they? I’m their niece, aren’t I? After all, Jérôme was only here in Philippines because of me, isn’t he? I wondered: if he was dating one of their daughters, would they still have asked him and hoped he said yes? Do they not give a shit at all about women?
I told my mother what they said, expecting her to be enraged and ready to fight. But my mother just shook her head with disapproval. ‘Just ignore them,’ she said. ‘There’s no point making yourself angry over talk like that.’
But I was angry. When I first began writing this blog post (weeks ago), I wrote it with a vengeance. I was going to talk about the shortcomings of Filipino men and their lack of respect for women. I was going to criticize the obsession with class and stature in Filipino society – how white and male mean first class, and everyone else falls into descending levels of worth (if you happen to be dark skinned and a woman, sorry, you’re out of luck). I was going to disclose my disappointment in my own family and my outrage on behalf of all women.
In short, I was hurt and angry and taking it all far too personally.
Then I attended a fortuitous event in Manila at the Impact Hub in Makati. Tony Meloto, the founder of Gawad Kalinga, was speaking about his journey into social entrepreneurship and how his organization is lifting Filipinos out of poverty. He dreams of a country where people are proud to be Filipino and wealth does not leave people behind. Everyone (rich and poor, men and women) must be involved in building this dream.
Traditional models of development
When we usually talk about development and alleviating poverty, the conversation always revolves around women (and for good reason). Poverty often has a female face and research shows that if you can provide a woman with a steady income, the likelihood her children will receive post-secondary education increases significantly. There’s a reason why the majority of our community partners on Cambio Market work solely with communities of women to provide employment and education.
But where do men fit into development? Should we just accept that men will be men and say “to the hell with them – we women will pave our own way!”? The problem with this way of thinking is that it’s wrong. The men at the bottom of the pyramid are the ones who fall victim to (and also contribute to) substance abuse, gang violence and petty crime. Many of them also become abusive at home, or abandon their wives and children. According to Tony Meloto, as long as we continue to ignore the role of men in poverty and development, they will become our liabilities when they should be our assets. These men are as much symptoms of the problems in society as they are causes, and we must help them be part of the solution instead of the ongoing problem. A man who doesn’t respect himself will never respect a woman.
A New Approach At Cambio Market
That’s when I realized that my anger was directed at the wrong people. Yes, I should be angry. Yes, I should be hurt. Yes, I should take it personally and be ready to fight – but poverty isn’t black and white. Sometimes the aggressor needs as much help as the victim.
In my work with Cambio Market, we already work with amazing partners on the ground like Olivia & Diego and Good Paper/The Paper Project. They employ low-income Filipina women (many of whom were former victims of sex trafficking) to produce every item and provide them steady income to help their families. We’re excited to continue with these projects, but we also acknowledge that we should be engaged with projects that also empower men and help them provide for their families. We believe in Tony Meloto’s dream of a country where no one is left behind – rich or poor, man or woman.
I’m still hurt but I’m no longer angry like I used to be. Time and a little reflection usually put things into perspective. One night during our trip, my aunts and uncles threw my parents a ‘despedida’ (goodbye party) to celebrate their return to Canada. For the first time, I joined Jérôme and my uncles at their Man Table. This triggered my aunt (who I’m sure was concerned and wanted to keep an eye on me) to sit down with us also. As more people arrived and saw women at the table, more of my aunts joined. Some of them shared a drink, others just shared in the company.
But that night, I saw something I’ve never seen before. I saw my aunts and uncles and cousins all sitting at the same table, laughing and singing and happy. I watched them with a feeling of lightness as they got up from the table, tipsy from drinking and lightheaded with happiness, and began dancing with each other in the middle of our backyard – everyone wondering why they haven’t been doing this all along.
Change may come sooner than we think.
Gelaine Santiago: Gelaine, a Filipino-Canadian, is co-founder of ChooseSocial.PH – the go-to resource to learn about the social enterprise scene in the Philippines. She is also co-founder of the social enterprise startup Cambio Market – an online shop for handcrafted, ethical products that give back. She’s pretty nerdy and loves to talk about all things social enterprises, entrepreneurship, travel, start-ups, and food (of course).