I first heard it many, many years ago, mid-1990’s, at a Barangay Health Center in Leyte. The doctor was firing off questions to a woman he had just given a checkup to.
“Kailan po kayo huling nagpagamit ng walang proteksyon?” asked the young doctor, in the same matter-of-fact tone he used when he asked her about persistent athritis.
I remember swinging my head to glare at the young doctor, filled with the righteous, uninformed idealism of the young. The doctor ignored me (of course), and waited patiently for the woman to respond. She replied slowly and softly, “halos gabi-gabi po ako ginagamit ng asawa ko, ayaw po niya mag-condom.”
After the woman had left, the doctor pulled me aside and told me, “I know you were offended by the term ‘nagpapagamit’. City girls are often surprised by the term. But in order to be effective I have to learn to speak their language.”
“But..but…but…. the language is so disempowering!” I sputtered back, blazing mad, like the angry fifteen-year-old that I was.
“Things can’t change overnight,” the doctor replied, before walking away to the next patient.
I remember that conversation now, more than ten years later, in the midst of the burning debate on the reproductive health bill. The doctor was right when he said that things can’t change overnight, but what he failed to realize was that there are key forces that actively prevent things from changing — whether overnight or not. When you, for example, continue to describe sex as the act of a man using a woman, you grant that notion a semblance of legitimacy. When you issue fire-and-brimstone threats to legislators who push for reproductive health, you deprive women of options central to her autonomy and prevent her from claiming her agency.
It’s a different thing altogether, of course, if you throw in the issue of abortion, because then you have two contending rights. Perhaps there would be those who would be of the persuasion that an unborn child does not have rights, but well, I happen to disagree. (This is a personal belief of course, that I don’t foist on other people.) The problem arises when the small-minded lump abortion with contraception into one lootbag of sin and evil and condemn to hell all women who take pills and insist on condoms.
To my mind, that is the crux of the issue of birth control: a woman’s autonomy over her body and the right of a woman to decide how many kids she wants to have, and when. To my mind, this has little to do with population management or economic theory, and everything to do with a woman’s agency. Depriving women of that right is doing violence to that autonomy.
That was why I was so appalled when GMA, pandering to the all-powerful Catholic Church, brazenly promoted natural family planning in her SONA and claimed that the population rates had actually gone down in the policy environment that eschewed artificial contraception and reproductive health. Mrs. Arroyo should go to the far-flung rural communities and talk to the women there, have them tell her how they cannot refuse their husbands’ sexual advances. She should listen to them talk about how they would be beaten up if they should so much as suggest a condom and then sit down some more to hear them narrate how they struggle to make ends meet to feed ten children.
I read an article by Sister Pilar Verzosa recently, one of the foremost pro-life campaigners in the Philippines, on how a large population actually translates to an active workforce and many more hands contributing to nation-building. I say that misses the point. if a woman who WANTS ten children is prevented from having ten children by the state, then let’s argue all we want about how a large population is actually good blah blah. Certainly, we must speak against policies in China like the one-child policy. BUT if a woman has ten children, not by choice but by lack of options and because cultural baggage wrought by centuries of Catholic guilt, then no one has the right to talk about nation-building.
I admit that many times, it’s easy for me to forget that many Filipino women don’t have what me or my girl friends take for granted: the capacity to formulate opinions and have these opinions listened to (whether or not they’re agreed with), the ability to cockily look at the world and at life and think to ourselves “I can take you on”, the desire to reach beyond our grasp, knowing that we can and giving notice to the world that WE WILL. And yes, the pleasure of revelling deeply and richly in our womanhood, exploring even the unexplored terrains of our sexuality, apologizing to no one, claiming the sublime in glorious, glorious ways.
I am lucky, indeed. As are those for whom womanhood is a gift and not a cultural burden. But until the day when no woman describes sex as “nagpapagamit”, our work does not stop.