Soroptimist Philippines at 50
For 50 years, an organization of women volunteers has worked tirelessly to build a community of empowered Filipino women across the Philippines. These volunteers assist women who live in poverty and need by giving them the opportunity to become bigger than their lot in life, and providing them with the tools they need towards becoming productive members of their families and their communities.
That this is done quietly and without much fanfare or media mileage, and that it has been happening for 50 years, is what makes the work of Soroptimist International of the Philippines Region or Soroptimist Philippines, extraordinary.
That it champions women who are rarely celebrated, and teaches a new generation of Filipino girls to dream big for themselves, no matter that they are born into poverty, is what makes this work even more valuable, 50 years since it started.
A global movement by and for women
Soroptimist International is a global movement of volunteers that seeks to transform the lives of women and girls. It currently takes pride in an 80,000-strong membership across 132 countries and territories, where volunteer-members work on educating and empowering women and girls by giving them the opportunities they need to improve their lives and become productive members of their communities.
The international organization boasts of four regional divisions across the world: Soroptimist International of the Americas, Soroptimist International of Great Britain & Ireland, Soroptimist International of Europe, and Soroptimist International of South West Pacific. Across these divisions, local, national and international initiatives are built around the belief that one’s gender need not be a hindrance to the development of one’s full potential.
Projects are grounded in the education of women and young girls, and in providing women with the skills and confidence to take on leadership roles in their families and communities. Soroptimist International has also consistently taken a stand for and constantly addresses issues about women and girls across the world, such as safe sanitation and displacement, and most importantly, violence against women.
In 2012 alone, Soroptimists all over the world affected 110,000 lives of women and girls, through 3,727 projects that promoted women and girls’ participation in education and leadership.
In the Philippines, the membership has grown to 3,200 members, across 88 clubs, from Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.
Empowerment in context
It is easy to imagine this to be the same kind of work that every other foundation or aid agency does for the poor and disenfranchised. And yet it is also clear that unlike international aid organizations that only fund big research and aid projects, and unlike foundations that work on providing only a specific type of assistance for very particular needs, Soroptimist International is unique in its decision to work within contexts, and enable women and girls to reach their goals, based on their very specific needs at a given historical milieu.
This is important for a country like the Philippines, where the needs of women are mired in the complexity of the politics of governance. This requires that projects geared towards the empowerment of women be grounded in a very clear sense not just of what women’s needs are, but also the kind of role they play in their specific communities, and the roadblocks they face in their goal of development and productivity.
This grounding is important, and as such Soroptimist Philippines works with existing clubs across the country and enjoins each club to Adopt-A-Barangay in their province. Established in 1981, this initiative allows volunteers to work from the ground up in creating projects for women and girls based on their needs in the barangay.
“We do a survey of the barangay first,” Teresita B. Choa, former president of Soroptimist Philippines and first Filipino president of the Soroptimist International of the Americas.
“Sometimes what we want to offer is not a necessity for them. So you really ask them: what is it that you need in your community? And we work from there.”
The challenge of volunteerism
This work is of course not easy. For Choa, who led Soroptimist Philippines in 1988, the experience required persistence and creativity, especially given the kind of work the organization sought to do.
“During my time, I couldn’t even enter Makati and do projects there, because the local government unit (LGU) thought we were a political organization, and they believed they already had women’s projects anyway. So I went to Mandaluyong and Pasay instead,” Choa smiles.
The engagement with the LGUs is a critical part of getting any project established and implemented on the barangay level, and this was expectedly met with some resistance – any socio-civic project overlaps after all with what the LGUs should be doing for their constituents. Case in point: during Choa’s time, the six programs of Soroptimist Philippines were health, eco-soc, environment, education, human rights, and international good will.
Yet at the same time, and probably through the years, it’s clear that additional support and assistance from the private sector and a foundation like Soroptimist Philippines can make a huge difference in people’s lives, especially when the projects they push for respond to the various and specific needs of communities. During Choa’s time, this included tree planting activities and safe water programs, education on zero-waste management, as well as medical missions and vaccination programs in the health centers.
That the projects of Soroptimist Philippines in 1988 could be projects in the present – well, that is the sad state of nation.
Protecting the Filipino woman
But probably one of the most important legacies of Soroptimist Philippines from the past 50 years is its focus on protecting women and children from violence, and enjoining them to learn about their rights.
“We were the first club to implement the women’s and children’s desk in the police precincts,” Choa explains. “There are five cases that the administrator of that particular desk handles: rape, incest, illegal recruitment, forced prostitution, and wife battery. These were the things we were concerned with as well.”
But this is not just about making sure that women and children can run to the authorities in the face of danger. Because Soroptimist Philippines listens to the women that they help, they realized that it takes more than just a desk at the police station to help women in distress.
“We were also in charge of the transit area,” Choa continues. “Because sometimes when the husband makes you a punching bag, and you run with your children with only the clothes on your back, you don’t take anything. So we built a transition area, a secure place, where these women can bring their children, and where they will be fed and cared for in the interim.”
The Family Code was new in 1988 and Soroptimist Philippines also used their work in the barangays as an opportunity to teach women about their rights under the new law. “At that time, let’s say your husband abandoned you, and you don’t know where he is, or if he’s dead, and you don’t get support, with the new Family Code, after five years you can declare yourself a free woman, and you can declare yourself a widow, and remarry,” Choa recounts. “If he comes back and you already have a husband, you can choose: do you want husband number 1 or husband number 2? We explained that to the barangay women.”
There was also a need to educate wives about husbands who might be philandering, and who endanger their wives’ health by refusing to wear a condom. “We want to make sure that our women are healthy, by making them aware of the dangers that they face, even in their personal relationships.”
50 years of service
While it doesn’t seem like the conditions of nation have changed, Soroptimist Philippines has had to change with the times, if only to address more current and urgent needs of women and girls across the country, given the fact as well of diversity.
Led by Myra Abubakar, Philippines Region Governor of Soroptimist, the past two years has meant a keener awareness of how, despite difference, the sameness of purpose is what must dominate the work of the organization. “We have clubs dominated by Muslim women. I am also a member of Soroptimist Jolo,” Abubakar explains. “Sometimes people think it might be difficult. But if your purpose is to help, regardless of religion, you can go beyond your differences.”
Especially since in a country like ours, what remains as the most urgent need is to alleviate the majority of our women and girls from poverty. “For example in Jolo, what we did in the barangay was to give out loans of P2000 pesos per woman. And instead of requiring them to pay interest, we just had them pay it back little by little, on a monthly basis,” Abubakar smiles. “It seems like a small thing, but we saw that it was already a huge thing for these women.”
Other projects also work towards teaching women how to generate their own income, no matter how small, as based on their specific contexts. In Barangay Saluysoy in Meycauayan Bulacan, mothers were taught fishing and cooking, which equipped them with the skills and confidence they needed to earn their own money through small businesses. This also prepares them for whatever might come, as their barangay is prone to flooding.
In Malabon, after Soroptimist organized and conducted training seminars in milkfish deboning and smoked fish processing, the women started selling their products and earning from these. This was a gift that kept on giving, as those who were trained in the seminars, also became trainers in the succeeding workshops, making it a self-sustaining project.
Even women who are incarcerated are assisted by Soroptimist Philippines. In San Juan, “Bags for Freedom” taught female inmates of the San Juan City Jail how to make bags out of recycled materials. The income they derived from their products was used by the women themselves to post bail.
According to Abubakar, the ways of assisting our women, and the projects that will yield positive results are multifarious. But Soroptimist remains steadfast in its belief in the power of education. “I am sure there are many opportunities and ways of helping them.
But for Soroptimist the task is really to make sure that women and children are educated,” she explains. “So one way for them to achieve that is you help them to earn the money they need to save for an education, if not their own, then for their daughters.”
On its 50th Year, Soroptimist Philippines is not falling back on the fruits of its labors, not just the knowledge of the great number of Filipino women and girls they have helped through their programs and projects, but also a map of the Philippines dotted with every place where a Soroptimist club exists and is actively affecting change.
This year, Soroptimist also launched its Empowered Women in Media Awards, to recognize successful women in the media industries towards encouraging young journalists, writers, filmmakers, photographers and other creatives in industries that are male-dominated and remain difficult to enter – and survive – for women. On its first year, the award was given to Domini Torrevillas, Joan Bondoc, and Amor Virata.
But the bigger milestones might be those that have a sustained effect, the kind that creates a cycle of positive change from one generation of women to the next, enabling mothers to become powerful models for their own daughters.
For Abubakar, the most important legacy of her term is the effort she put into strengthening the clubs of Soroptimist across the Philippines, but also the local implementation of the Dream It Be It project of the Soroptimist International of the Americas.
“This program is specifically for girls 13 to 17 years old, wherein we help them achieve and encourage them to reach for their dreams,” Abubakar explains. “For this what we’ve established is a mentoring program, for which we found the best partner in the Lorna Vicuña Foundation. They have a very good mentoring program for girls who were abused or have gone through difficulties in life, and it has helped us in mentoring our young girls in how to achieve their dreams.”
With Soroptimist members taking on their own mentees, the Dream It Be It project in the Philippines becomes a continuous process of assisting, encouraging, and building upon the dreams of young Filipinas.
For Choa meanwhile, the success of a project in any given barangay is measured by one thing: financial independence. “A success to me is when all the women in a given community have work,” says Choa. “Because that means that they are financially independent, and their children are better taken cared of than before.”
With the goal of touching lives, one woman at a time, it is also the humility of Soroptimist Philippines that has kept it under the radar for far too long. But 50 years since its establishment in the Philippines, it seems time to give credit where it is due.
It also seems like the best time to learn from the kind of work that Soroptimist does, which is unique in its insistence on listening to our women and children in need, instead of presuming that we know what they want or aspire for. The first step towards real change, we realize, is that we take a stand for the protection and empowerment of all women. The second is that we listen to the specificity of experience and need.
We are a long way from uplifting the lives of all our women and young girls, and the work can be overwhelming. But the women warriors of Soroptimist Philippines have shown us all how it can be done, one barangay at a time. It would do us all well to learn from them as they look forwards to the next 50 years.