The riveting saga of Mary Jane Veloso has hogged the headlines in the mainstream and social media lately. Every major international network (Time, The Guardian, Aljazeera, BBC, Washington Post) and Philippine national daily has dedicated sound bytes and pages on Veloso’s plight as part of the coverage on Indonesia’s controversial move to carry out this year the death sentences by firing squad of convicted drug traffickers.
In the past two weeks, tweets about Veloso has trended on Twitter, from the viral hashtags #deathisnotjustice when netizens were pleading for mercy and commutation of her sentence and those of nine other male convicts to the triumphant #MaryJaneLives when she, the only woman among the condemned, cheated death at the eleventh-hour past midnight on April 29th.
Many of us in the country, with or without the activist streak in our systems, were hooked on the coverage online and on the local radio. We stayed awake, defying self-imposed curfews, till those nerve-wracking moments when the world knew she was spared.
Still, Veloso’s portraits in the media leave a ripple of disturbance on my mind. The photos of her escorted by the police and then posing, with a smile on her face,during a party inside the prison, wearing a lacy gown, like she were dressed to join the junior-senior prom she had never attended in real life. She has become the portrait of EveryPinay as labor contraband, reminding me of the fissures and loopholes through which the Mary Janes fall through and become tragedies, here and abroad. This, despite my country’s achievement in women empowerment and so-called gender parity.
Indeed the Philippines has consistently ranked among the top ten countries in the World Economic Forum’s yearly Gender Parity Index Report. Last year was an extra-ordinary achievement as the country earned the fifth place, twice alone – the only one from Asia-Pacific, and also the solitary one from the low-middle income countries. This year we make it to penultimate 9th place, with the new nation Rwanda taking over our 5th place and Nicaragua catapulted to land from a low of 57 place in 2003, and New Zealand, jumped from 13th place to 7th place.
Still, these glowingly proud statistics did not matter to this one woman and her family. From the news reports, I decipher Veloso’s timeline of three decades, and its bedevilled deadly circumstances that render a young woman as undocumented worker, as most vulnerable, confronting risks of gender-based violence.
From the news reports, I gleaned that Veloso is a high school undergraduate, finishing freshman year in high school in 1998 and never advanced to the second year. There is scarce detail on how she spent six years after she dropped out from school. At 18, in 2003, she had her first child. Three years later, in 2008, at 23, she bore a second son as both she and her husband were jobless.
A year after, in 2009, she left behind her one-year-old son in the care of her parents and went to Dubai as a domestic helper. She returned to the Philippines ten months later, unable to finish a two-year contract as she fled from attempted rape by her employer. Three months after she arrived home she got enticed to work in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by her godsister. When she arrived there, she was regaled with gifts and persuaded to hop over by plane to Jogyakarta, Indonesia on a quick errand. She was arrested at the airport when the police found a hidden cache of 2.6 kilos heroin in her luggage. Unwittingly, she was made a drug mule. Five years after, she was convicted and sentenced to die by firing squad.
Veloso was trafficked twice: when she went to Dubai and when she went to Malaysia and Indonesia. She could not have hurdled the stringent requirements and rigorous process set by government legislation in order to leave legally and gain a measure of protection as an overseas worker.
After lessons learned through the years by policing the labor export industry, the Philippine government has required a high school diploma as basic document for those seeking overseas work as well as certified attendance in vocational courses and some preparatory workshops on worker’s rights.
Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority show that in the last two years, women of her age (between 20-30) compose the bulk of those who go out of the country. Some of them get into the service industry, a euphemism for paid housework. Though more than half of them become laborers and menial workers mostly in neighboring Asia.
The Philippine government had confronted the demons of gender-based violence by coming up with at least ten policies in the past two decades. But I wonder if Mary Jane is ever aware of at least one of these laws and how their provisions can keep her safe, protected and empowered.
But enforcement of these laws have lagged behind and the deeper, cultural transformation said to have emanated from these policies has been slow.
It isn’t as if the government agencies, like the police, justice and the social welfare departments, are not doing anything --- they are. And yet, teenage pregnancies rates have spiralled over a 35-year period, and poor, less schooled and rural-residents are more susceptible both to teenage pregnancy, domestic violence and human trafficking.
Statistics on labor participation shows that in the last five years, the number of high school graduates who have entered into the labor market is almost half those of the males. A portion of high graduates have gone into tertiary education to get professional degrees, but most have become teenage mothers like Mary Jane Veloso; thus, implying this figure accounts for those women are left behind in the homes, doing unpaid carework for households and infants and/or disappeared from the data monitors’ radar into the underground economy.
Yesterday, when Veloso’s mother had arrived from Indonesia, she delivered an impassioned speech at a rally organized by militants whose impassioned campaign shored up support for her daughter’s reprieve. She blamed government, the President in particular, for her daughter’s plight. Had there been enough jobs in the country, her child would not have gone abroad.
I choose not to think so. Mary Jane’s mom, have patience with me but I beg to disagree with you. For me, it is not a matter alone of generating employment. All else would have to be counted. The universal education for all program under the Millenium Development Goals has excluded the likes of Mary Jane.
The government could not have waited till the last-minute to exercise some brinksmanship to delay her execution and earn bragging credits for it.
The radio quoted the President as saying that the Velosos are ungrateful not to have acknowledged the government’s role in Mary Jane’s reprieve. “Were we with your daughter when she left for abroad bypassing lawful processes?” the President was quoted to have asked.
I think Veloso did not have the full agency to shape her destiny alone. Having sent two, three appeals was not enough. Government should have provided safety nets early on.
That she managed to elude immigration watchers at the airport twice, that she became a teenage mom and an out-of-school youth at an age when she should still be in school, suggests multiple failures on the part of government -- and nation -- on several fronts. She suffered assaults from her employer, she was duped into becoming a drug mule. These suggest that the problem is systemic, we as a nation has yoked all Mary Janes with the burden of endemic poverty, so that for the Mary Janes in our midst survival becomes an irredeemable life(long) sentence.
But one glimmering triumph is that gestures of cross-border sisterhood and digital activism, with Indonesia women activists acting in solidarity with their Filipino counterparts, have convinced the Indonesia government to issue the reprieve.
Time magazine online mentioned Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, a former Indonesian domestic worker who survived severe abuse in Hong Kong, Sringatin, and Eni Lestari as among those who pleaded for Veloso's life on the streets and in cybersphere. It also mentioned two women lawmakers,Eva SundariandRieke Diah Pitaloka.
"Anis Hidayah, executive director of Jakarta-based Migrant Care, is among workers’-rights activists who have been campaigning for Veloso. When she attended Jokowi’s emergency meeting to discuss Veloso’s case on Tuesday afternoon, she tells TIME, 'I told the President that [Indonesian] migrant workers on death row overseas are in the same position like Mary Jane, they are all victims. As I spoke, I couldn’t help crying,' ” TIME reported.
In the Philippines, the GABRIELA federation of women's organizations and Migrante International (Global Alliance of Filipino Workers)
It is this kind of power and solidarity that the world needs to uplift, not only to save many a female overseas worker in jail, but also to make sure they will thrive to carve new lives out of prison.