Tuesday, November 08, 2005

an island Paradise/

"THERE was a time when we would set up our pots and a fire on the beach, close to the water. We would then paddle the water and the fish would jump out of the sea, straight into the pots! That was how much fish we had then!"
That was Toti Menguito, guardian of the Gilutongan Marine Sanctuary in Cordova town in the province of Cebu, describing what it was like at one time on his island to a group of about a dozen visitors from different organizations invited to visit their project.
Was he giving us a fish tale? I don't think so. It wasn't the first time I've heard such stories from Filipino fisherfolk. They all talk of a time, not too long ago, when the oceans and rivers were filled with fish. And as an anthropologist, I can believe that, because all over the Philippines, I've found that many of the traditional fishing gear that's been developed-rattan baskets for example-were clearly meant for fishing not too far from the shore.
My guess then is that Toti wasn't exaggerating about the abundance of fish in Gilutongan. Even today, the area around Gilutongan still has some marine resources that residents are trying very hard to preserve through their marine sanctuary, one that is managed by the community, from patrolling the waters to doing periodic reef checks to see if they had managed to slow down the destruction of marine life to family planning education.
Now, you might ask, how did family planning get into the picture? Several Filipino nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), notably Path Philippines and Save the Children, are now combining family planning with environment programs, which really makes sense. We can't keep romanticizing environmental conservation by reducing it to an admiration of mountains and trees and birds; we have to deal with the human population that depletes and destroys these resources.
The stress on the environment is always most obvious in coastal communities. Maybe because our marine resources were once so abundant, coastal areas have always attracted settlers who, perhaps because of the easy life, quickly grew. The demographic surveys have always shown fishing communities to have higher fertility rates. In Gilutongan, I found several households with more than six children, with gaps of about a year between siblings. In one case, there was a couple with six children occupying a hut not more than 10 square meters, the space used as a bedroom, kitchen, living room. The mother was 36 years old but looked like she was in her 50s.
Everywhere I went there were children with scabies and other skin infections, their stomachs bloated from intestinal worms. Childhood ends early in such a setting-there was an 11-year old boy, stunted and underweight, who came in with some fish he had caught. Path's survey shows that in these communities, the males are dropping out earlier from school to help with fishing.
The options are narrowing for fishing communities, the seas not even providing enough for a family's subsistence needs. A report from the Department of Environment notes that fisherfolk in the area sometimes have to go fishing in Bohol, Surigao, Palawan or even as far as Malaysia to bring in aquarium fish, abalone, octopus, sea cucumber, and sharks' fin, all of which are meant for export. They do this using the simplest of equipment, described as pinobreng panagat (poor man's gear) that cannot compete with large commercial fishing ventures. The temptation to use cyanide is always there.
Gilutongan has developed alternative livelihoods. There's some seaweed farming going on. There's an eco-tourism program that charges entrance fees to divers, and it's been quite successful, bringing in some two million pesos in fees, part of which has gone back into community development, including the construction of a guardhouse and the installation of solar power. But the island still does not have its own health center or health personnel. Neither does it have a potable water supply. Residents are also aware that tourism, even eco-tourism, has its risks, and are thinking of imposing a quota on visitors.
When I visited, the island was already inundated with election posters and stickers. One sticker caught my eye, something about "Kontra Aborsyon" (against abortion). I asked about the sticker, but no one was sure which candidate had put it up. I found it almost a cruel joke, trying to get elected on an anti-abortion platform. This is an island where the most basic health services are not available, where family planning was only recently introduced. Here, women become pregnant year after year and abortion is probably not an option -- no money and lots of gossip.
It was a hot day when I visited, but I decided against going out swimming. Some of those who did go out came back glowing, describing the colorful corals and fish, and how you could just float there all day in perfect bliss, in this tropical paradise. Unfortunately, for too many of the children in these fishing communities, the reality is that of paradise lost.


WHO can ever forget that grand Hollywood production, "The Ten Commandments"? Think, too, of how it has influenced the way we look at ethics and morality as rules set in stone, literally handed down by God amid thunder and lightning, to be followed word for word, through all time.
I am sure there are similar interpretations of ethics in other religions, "being good" identified with religiosity, with rituals and prayers and following prescribed rules of what to do and what not to do accompanied by threats of reward (heaven) and punishment (hell or purgatory).
Lately, people have started to talk of the need for spirituality, which I think is a positive move in the way it refers to a world-view, a sense of right or wrong, that comes out of critical reflection and discernment. Unfortunately though, words have a way of becoming trivialized and sometimes I suspect people still mean "religiosity" when they talk about the need for "spirituality." I hear references, for example, to "Catholic spirituality," implying some absolute monolithic model, again handed down from the heavens like in a Hollywood film. This usage again defines one's own group as distinct from "others," usually implying one's own "spirituality" is superior to that of others.
In reality, there are many different Catholic spiritualities, and even more variations of Christian spiritualities, all of them ways of trying to be like Christ, or at least an aspect of Christ. These spiritualities are often associated with particular religious orders, reflecting the thinking of its founders who, in turn, were shaped by the historical circumstances in which they lived.
That's a lot of words to process, so let's get straight to some examples which I'm drawing from a book by Chris Lowney called "Heroic Leadership," which focuses on Jesuit spirituality (another column, I promise) and a lecture in 2002 by the Ateneo de Manila University's Father Bienvenido Nebres.
We start off with Benedictine spirituality. The Benedictine order was established in the 6th century, at a time when Europe was in ferment, slowly slipping into what has been called the Dark Ages, as Attila the Hun and his "barbaric" hordes destroyed what was left of the Roman Empire.
Benedictine spirituality sought to retreat from the chaos of the outside world, offering order through monastic life and discipline. Benedictine monks had to take a vow of stability, agreeing to stay in a monastic house until they died, their lives revolving around the rhythm of prayers, seven times a day from Matins at 2 a.m. to the Compline at 7 p.m.
It wasn't all prayer in the monasteries-the monks appreciated the dignity of labor, growing their own food and becoming quite self-sufficient. What was striking about the Benedictines was that they never really retreated from the world, their monasteries actually open to visitors and the outside world. Today, some Benedictines generate income through computer work, still faithful to their sixth-century principle of Order through Labor.
The Franciscans emerged several centuries later, in the 12th century. Europe was moving out of the Dark Ages, with urban centers developing together with a new and affluent merchant class. Against this backdrop, we have Francis of Assisi developing a religious order that rejected the lifestyles of the rich, seeking to identify with the poor Christ. Franciscan spirituality comes closest to current New Age philosophies, with an emphasis on harmony with nature and simplicity. Saint Francis' feast day is used, even today, for a blessing of pets, commemorating his own closeness to nature.
The Dominicans were contemporaries of the Franciscans, established literally as Ordo Praecatorium (O.P.), the Order of Preachers. They were established at a time when the Catholic Church was highly factionalized, with the groups attacking each other as heretics. The Order of Preachers was there to uphold The Faith. To this day, Dominican schools emphasize theology and philosophy, and are generally thought of as conservatives although there are in fact Dominicans today who believe that preaching includes defense of the poor and upholding social justice.
The Society of Jesus was established in the 16th century, at a time when Protestantism was rapidly growing, literally in protest against the Catholic religious' excesses. The Jesuits' founder was a former soldier, and drew from the military for many of his religious metaphors. Instead of retreating from the world, the Jesuits chose to engage the world, setting off for the most difficult and remote places.
Our schools -- Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or secular, as with government institutions -- need to make students more conscious of the different spiritualities that exist, how they came about, and how the spiritualities need to respond to the needs of our times, as they did in the past.
I studied in Jesuit schools for 12 years and am realizing how this education continues to shape my view of the world, sometimes in paradoxical ways. I think of how my staying in the University of the Philippines and (so far) resisting invitations to join the Ateneo de Manila full-time could in fact be a function of this Jesuit upbringing and spirituality, this sense that we need to give priority to hardship areas like the University of the Philippines!
We might want to ask ourselves, too, if our problems as a nation might have come about because we have imbibed too little of spirituality, and too much of the trappings of religion with its emphasis on public performances of piety and charity, its holier-than-thou sectarianism, its intolerant and divisive dogmatism.
Our redemption as a nation may yet come as we learn from the different spiritualities that women and men have developed through the ages, responding to the needs of their times. Even limiting ourselves to the four "Catholic" spiritualities I just described, we will find they offer many lessons for life.
The Jesuits remind us that Christ did engage the world, often with great passion, but the Franciscans remind us Christ did all this without armies, without material wealth. (Some) Dominicans remind us we need to preach, but that Christ was most effective when he preached through deeds.
And the Benedictines, I will admit they do "tempt" me too with their reminders that while we might want to engage the world, we should guard against being engulfed by it, and that there will be times, too, when we need to build peace within our own homes and our hearts, without having to set up walls.

c h i l d b r i d e s

THEY'RE married off at the rate of 25,000 each day. That's each day, not each year.
Child brides are those who are married before the age of 18. In several countries, these young marriages are actually the norm. The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) gives some startling figures, noting that in Niger, 82 percent of girls would have been married by the age of 18. In Bangladesh, the figure is 75 percent, in Mali it's 63 percent, in Ethiopia and India it's 57 percent.
Some readers are probably not too shocked, having seen teenagers getting married, but when we talk about child brides, we include quite a large number of very young girls. In Nepal, according to the ICRW, 7 percent of girls are married before the age of 10. By the age of 15, 40 percent would have been married.
Again, one could be callous and ask, "So?" Mary, the mother of Jesus, was probably about 14 or 15 when she was pregnant, again reflecting norms that persisted for many centuries in many societies. Many of us, myself included, might in fact have grandmothers or great-grandmothers who were married at a very young age.
Last week I attended the Global Health Council's annual conference in Washington and one of the main themes discussed was early marriage, with several papers discussing the terrible consequences on individuals and on societies of such traditions.
Some of the problems these child brides face deal with biology. Sexual intercourse, pregnancy and childbirth all carry risks for these young girls because their bodies aren't quite prepared for the physiological stress. There are all kinds of complications accompanying pregnancy, including a prolapse of the uterus (buwa in Filipino). A Tagalog aphorism about a pregnant woman having one foot in the grave probably grew out of observations of the many young girls who died delivering a child (literally, a child delivering a child, when you think about it).
I was struck though by one of the presentations at the Global Health Council meeting where they showed death rates of young mothers. The figures were astronomically high for developing countries, but when they showed the figures for teenage mothers in the United States, the death rate was miniscule. The point made by the speaker was that the health risks for child brides go beyond biology and may in fact be largely determined by society and culture, such as the type of health care provided.
Certainly, there's a world of a difference between a 13-year-old American girl and her counterpart in, say, Bangladesh. Young girls in Third World countries are much more vulnerable because they are practically powerless. They are married off to men they may have never seen before. Once married, they become their husband's property, there to serve the husband's family and to bear his children. In such settings, they are much more prone to abuse from the husband and his family.
In many countries, the power inequality between the bride and the groom is amplified by a large age difference, meaning the male is often much older than the child brides. Dr. Judith Bruce of the Population Council pointed out how this age difference increases the risks of the child brides for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS: Because the men are older, they would have had more sexual partners, including the possibilities of having acquired HIV/AIDS. In other cases, these older men continue to have unprotected sex with many partners even after marrying the young bride.
Bruce had statistics to show that these child brides are at greater risk of being infected with HIV because as someone who is married, they have sex more often than a sexually active single girl, and that sex is almost always unprotected since obviously she cannot ask her husband to use a condom. In fact, these young brides are often under intense pressure to start having children as early as possible.
Bruce and the other speakers emphasized that this tradition of early marriage is part of a cycle of poverty. It is mainly in poor families where you have early marriage. In urban slums and rural areas, parents will not invest in the education of their daughters because they see them as liabilities, girls who will leave them eventually. Sometimes, the poverty pushes them to marry off their daughters as early as possible.
Once married, these girls will no longer be able to stay in school. They tend to be socially isolated, sequestered at home to raise another generation of children where daughters are again deprived of opportunities to break out of the intergenerational cycles of early marriage and poverty.
Ultimately, society pays for this. The young brides, as well as their children, face greater risks for illness and death. The young brides also represent "wasted human capital," reduced to becoming baby-makers.
What's the situation in the Philippines? Officially, our Family Code prescribes a minimum age of 18 for marriage, but there are quite a number of exceptions here. Indigenous communities, for example, are allowed to use custom law for marriages, which can mean very young brides and grooms.
In addition, Presidential Decree 1083, issued during the time of Marcos, prescribes Sharia or Islamic law for marriages, allowing "any Muslim male at least fifteen years of age and any Muslim female of the age of puberty or upwards" to get married. The law actually states that a Sharia court can order marriage for a girl aged between 12 and 15.
Many of these early marriages among cultural minorities and Muslims will be arranged, which means the young brides have little negotiating power to protect themselves from abuse.
Let's not forget, too, that even among Christian Filipinos, it's common to fake the age of a young couple where the girl has become pregnant and the family wants to rush a marriage. To avoid social stigma, a young girl is condemned to an early marriage. The only consolation we have here is that in these situations, the early pregnancy and marriage are more likely to have occurred because of courtship, involving a young male and female. The power inequality would not be as problematic, but "love" itself, as we know too well, doesn't necessarily mean a better life for the young couple, especially the bride.
I have a student who is doing her doctoral research on these young couples, her research site being a typical lowland Christian community in one of the Central Luzon provinces. I'm hoping other graduate students will do similar research in other settings, including our cultural minority groups, on a topic around which there's too much silence, and acceptance.