Maria Goes To Town is a popular game in Philippines that had men changing into women’s clothes and racing around like a woman going to town. But the Maria Goes to Town (MGT) project in the conflict –ridden island of Mindanao, goes beyond changing clothes --- it is changing how men and women regard women as they bring about changes to themselves, their families and their community.
Dadang Cultura is one of the 60 rural women in the sleepy town of Magsaysay in Mindanao who are excited with the changes brought about by MGT.
Dadang looks older than the 40 year-old that she is, probably because she has been through a lot. Dadang ‘s husband died five years ago and she was left with 3 children to raise. Having been dependent on his husband’s earning, the death of her husband was a shock for her. Dadang struggled with meager resources and tried vending to be able to fend herself and her children. Then she got involved with her husband’s brother who constantly beat her and wouldn’t give her money. She longed to escape from him but because she didn’t have the courage to leave, she stayed on.
“Before, I used to only earn 1.5 dollars a day by selling my vegetables. But now with the existing market where I can display my products, I earn three times more. And it is not so exhausting as before.” Dada recalls. “I also learned how to manage my business through careful planning.”
“The project opened my eyes to my rights as a woman. It also taught me how to lead a group,” Dada reveals. As the elected president of their women’s group called the Bidlisiw Women Association of Cabubuhan, she mets her group on monthly basis to discuss problems they encounter in running the market and to plan for ways to expand and branch their project .
More than that, as one of the empowered women in their community she has found the courage to leave her abusive partner behind. Her time is now focused on supporting her children and managing the group’s social enterprise. Aside from the market that they are managing, they have recently put up a community drug store. Like the rest of women in her group, she has found time to relax and bond with them.
Other women in her community who share similar situation are also benefitting from the initiative. Poverty pervades in this sleepy town of Magsaysay where most people relying mostly on subsistence farming and fishing. There was little opportunity and those who have the means chose to work in the city or abroad to escape poverty. But things started to change in 2006 when a group of Filipino migrants initiated the project MGT.
The MGT is a brainchild of Damayan (Solidarity) , a diaspora community based in Netherlands. One of forces behind Damayan which is headed by Basco Hernandez, is Jessie Ligan, a migrant Filipina who left Magsaysay in the 80s and married a Dutch and now lives in Netherlands .
“Since I arrived here in Holland 25 years ago , I was busy thinking how to help my countrymen especially my townmates.” Jessie who was an activist in the 80s remembers. She is active in raising funds for their migrant group by joining in cultural dances abroad. Once, she tried to help a group of wives of a local transport group in a far away city but somehow the project did not sustain. A new opportunity came in Christmas 2004 when she and her family visited her hometown.
“As visitors we always have to travel to the distant cities just to buy vegetables, fruits and other things. There is no place in our barrio where the farmers can bring their products. We have ricefields, farms and we have a lot of products but where are these products to be brought to?” Jessie shared. “ I saw some women (wives of the farmers) selling their products from house to house and they have to walk a few kilometers to Kibungsod to sell their products. We need a little market, that is what I heard from mostly women in my home barrio. I saw the necessity of my townmates so I brought this idea when I went back home to Holland.”
On behalf of Damayan which she is an active member, she started the idea of joining the Migrant Idea Contest which was organized by OIKOS, SMS (Stichting Mondial Samenleving) and CORDAID (a funding agency). Basco Fernandez, the head of Damayan wrote the proposal and she helped gather more information from Magsaysay through telephone and text.
“In October 2005, Maria Goes to Town was chosen the best migrant idea project . We won €10,000,” she proudly recalled. “We raised up more funds by sending the winning project to other funding agencies and foundations.”
The MGT became the means that Jessie, Basco and other migrants help the poor women in Magsaysay town by opening opportunities where they can participate in the local market as micro entrepreneurs and get better income .
DAMAYAN called for the pooling of resources for the MGT. It tapped the social capital of the local hometown association, the local government units (LGU) , the private sector and the diaspora investors. They were able to get the support of Novib-OXFAM and CORDAID which provided 10,000 US dollars for the construction of the market. The local government unit (LGU) of Magsaysay also provided for the 1,000 square meter lot where the market was constructed. The diaspora group also put in additional capital and supported the capability-building component of the project and brought in .
“ I will have my head cut off”
The project encountered a rough patch at the start. The husbands of the women attempted to take over the construction of the public market. Having been used to run the public domain, the men doubted the capacity of their wives to oversee the construction of the market, much more running a market. So skeptical they were in the women’s ability that one of these men announced “I will have my head cut off if the women will be able to construct the market”.
But women made of 60 members coming from 3 neighboring villages, stood their ground and showed that they too can supervise the construction of the public market. The men slowly realized that they are dealing with women who mean business.
DAMAYAN tapped a local resource group, the JEP Consultant and Trainers to help strengthen the group and provide education on rights and skills training to the women. A woman community organizer from a resource partner of Damayan , came to educate them about gender and made them understand why society treats men and women differently and what they can do to change that. Next, they sent business experts to teach these women how to plan for their business and how to manage it.
“One of the problems they encountered is the lack of products to sell.” Vida Pacturan, the Managing Director of JEP Consultants and Trainers shares. “They would have only a few products to sell because most of them are into subsistence farming.”
As most of the women are engaged in marginal farming of bananas, cassava and vegetables, JEP taught them improved way of growing bananas and five women and their households who adopted the technology have better harvest .Another four women have started poultry raising under contract arrangement with a local poultry supplier. JEP also linked them to a microfinance institution for their capital needs. They also encouraged the women to grow vegetables in their backyard. Now, they are able to sell more products in the market.
With more women actively engaged in the market as sellers, this has also brought some changes in the households.” The men are helping more in the household chores than before”, claimed Evangeline Pardilahan, another member of the women’s group.
Multiplying the Success
The success of MGT project earned the Filipino diaspora international recognition during the JMDI Knowledge Fair held in Brussels. It now serves as a model for a new project called MARIA 4 MDG (Millennium Development Goals) which seeks to harness diaspora community commitment to gather a multi-stakeholders transnational partnerships that will help home communities fight poverty, improve the situation of women and build partnership.
This new project with support from the United Nation aims to reach out to another 1,2000 rural women or 6000 household members, enable women micro-enterpreneurs earn 100 USD with a common economic facility and later on mobilize them for food security and rural development. The new project builds on the MGT approach by combining diaspora giving and women social enterprise organizing and leveraging these to creative supportive partnership with the local government.
Migrants As An Emerging Force in Development?
The Maria Goes To Town experience goes beyond changing women and men and their community. It also offers interesting possibilities for changes in the traditional role that migrant Filipinos play in the country’s development aside from being senders of remittances to their family.
The Philippines is one of top countries in the world that annually send out thousands of its men and women to foreign lands to keep the government and economy afloat. Export labor as a government development policy adopted since 1974 results in remittances which reaches US$ 7 billion a year.
During the 1970s, most of the migrants were men who work in construction and manufacturing industries in the Middle East. Then the Newly Industrializing Countries of Asia, which have their women entering into labor force, created the need for domestic helpers and care givers of the children left home. Soon, Filipino women were filling in the jobs as domestic helpers and care givers in the more progressive Asian countries and the flow of migrant workers became dominated by women workers.
Filipino women in particular constitute 60-80% of the workers abroad working mostly as care givers and entertainers.
While their remittances enable some 2.6 million families to meets their basic needs and contribute to our GNP, the social cost of a missing mother or an older sister in a family cannot be ignored. Anecdotal stories abound about families being torn apart or children suffering from loneliness and neglect as their mothers work in foreign lands, therefore lending credence to the fear the women outmigration weakens further the moral fabric of the society.
On the other hand, an INSTRAW study show that the remittance of women migrants further served to finance the migration of other Filipino me and women . And aside from enabling many households to meet their most basic needs , women remittances are also spent in land investment and education for their children.
The same study pointed out that while the positive impacts of remittances are felt by the family, there is also an increase in social inequalities between families receiving remittances and those families who do not have a migrant worker. The Philippines also experiences the impact of the braindrain in health and education , created by nurses and teachers working abroad.
But increasing poverty in rural and urban areas as the Philippine economy reels from the global economic disaster and poor governance and the lack of jobs continue to push many women to work abroad.
For most women, the power to choose is taken away from her hands as the decision to work abroad becomes a survival strategy, not just for herself but for her family. With these trends, one is left with the feeling that the women outmigration is inevitable and cannot be stopped.
Can the tide of out-migration be stopped? Can migrants aside from their remittances, contribute to the development of their communities and alleviate poverty so that men and women have alternatives rather than leave their families to work in foreign lands?
DAMAYAN, as it mobilizes support both abroad and local to help other women back in their home communities fight poverty, shows us that Filipino migrants are looking beyond their families and are now trying to help bring about opportunities to their home communities.
This experience and efforts to replicate the success stories in 6 more towns provide us some hope that the flow of women and men leaving the country will somehow ebb with the migrant Filipinos will play an important role in stemming the tide. Most of all, this also offers new possibilities for other nations around the globe experiencing heavy migration, to tap the power of the migrant communities to fight poverty back home and reverse the tide of migration.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 31 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most forgotten corners of the world. Meet Us.Voices of Our Future Assignment: Op-eds