[Opinion] On Lola and our social debt to women

My grandmother who is now over 90 years old has never encountered the concept of social debt. An epitome of the women of her generation, she managed the household with an extended family on a day to day basis. At a meager budget, she was innovative in budgeting in order to have money for food, tuition fee of children in school, health expenses and house rent, among others.

Our grandmother also took the cudgels of contracting debt from her friends who are financially capable in order to cover for expenses necessary in order to have both ends meet. After our grandfather died, she decided to stay with her children working in the United States. During her periodic vacation in the Philippines, she recounted how the US government provides the social services that women her age needed like food, medicine and medical services and even a cash allowance.

Having these services was the closest experience she had regarding financial freedom in her life, she shared. Sadly, however, it has been provided for, not by the government of her country, but the US government which is transient.

I’m sure that many women of her age will have many stories to share about and they will realize that beyond their personal control, it is government that actually plays the role of providing the necessary services that is needed of its people.

While many Filipino women have struggled to acquire quality education in their aim to uplift themselves and that of their family members, generally, many have remained at the household level. The household defines the lives of many Filipino women and the problems they are facing have become complex with modernity.

To say disappointing is an understatement if we take look on how the government portrayed its role as provider of social services. The unfulfilled obligation of the government to its citizens, especially to women, is what we call the accumulated “social debt”. The government’s continued honoring of financial obligations, including paying odious and illegitimate debts adds up to social debt.

Most of us are aware of the fact that food, education, health and housing are rights enshrined in the Philippine Constitution, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (IESCR) both adopted (1966); and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, 1984).

Past and present administrations have prioritized debt servicing over the provision of social services, particularly health, education, and housing.

Let’s take a closer look at some statistics. From 1986 to 2011, the average annual spending for health is P15.01 billion; education, P102.87 billion; and, housing, P7.32 billion. However, the average annual debt service, both interest and principal payments, reaches P321.84 billion for the same period.

The stark difference in allocations have resulted in high maternal mortality, children not completing education, increasing number of street dwellers, and a wide gap between rich and poor. In the end, the task of providing the gaps on financial support has become the burden of many of our women. This is a kind of burden that becomes heavier during times of economic difficulties.

More than the difficulties, the country has a relatively higher maternal mortality ratio (deaths of women per 100,000 live births). According to UNDP 2008 data, 94 Filipino mothers die annually.

Women need not die from giving birth especially since key international and national policies, such as CEDAW and the Magna Carta of Women that assure women’s health from birth until death, have been passed over the last decades. Women’s health goes beyond looking after health during her reproductive years.

If we go by the standards of the World Health Organization, adequate health programs require government budget allocations equivalent to five percent of gross domestic product. This means that based on record of yearly budget allocations for health, Philippine government has accumulated a health debt of P4.8 trillion from 1986 to 2011.

For education, six out of 10 children ages 12-15 drop out from secondary education and eventually three are only able to reach tertiary level, according to government data.

The inadequate government budget allocation for education makes Filipino mothers struggle in sending their children to school.

With regards to shelter, the government has 11,947,992 housing backlog in all regions, according to the HUDCC report 2010. With P120,000 for a 45-square meter house, as estimated by the National Housing Authority, the government’s social debt to the housing sector amounts to P1.43 trillion for 2010 alone.

The meager housing allocation has failed to make housing accessible and affordable to many families. In fact, about 80 percent of families now face demolition of their community or property.

Likewise, women in agriculture continue to face challenges resulting from discrimination and marginalization. This is happening in spite of the fact that women produce more than half of what the world eats.

Women spend 11 to 16 hours a day in productive and reproductive work and participate in 90 percent of planting and harvesting both in agriculture and fisheries. Yet, the role and contribution of women in the rural sector are often unrecognized, undervalued and unprotected. Rural women makes up less than half of agriculture and fisheries program and less than 30 percent of women small farmers have access to support services while only nine percent have access to government-assisted capital support.

Looking at all these facts can point out only one thing, that our government has not really recognized the role of women and that it has been accumulating social debt to women. The experiences of women like my grandmother illustrates that the role of women across generations has hardly changed; many remain in the state of neglect; and that government has portrayed minimal role in ensuring that legislation and covenants are properly enforced.

At more than 90 years old, I guess I have very little good news to share to my grandmother about our government’s treatment of women aside from saying that you will say goodbye to this world with our government being unable to pay its many debts to you, including its social debt.

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