Organizing women in communities through health program

The week before Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo delivered her final State of the Nation Address or SONA, was a busy week for the organizers of Gabriela's Muntinlupa-Taguig chapters.

On Tuesday morning, Gabriela organizers set up a makeshift booth in Sitio (settlement) Tuklas where they offered free blood pressure check up.

The booth was strategically set up near the alley's entrance so passersby who were either going to work or running errands would be enticed to have their blood pressure measured. While the health team members were busy checking up patients, Ate (elder) Aviec, a local organizer, was handing out leaflets to passersby and invited them to join the protest action in time for the SONA.

Traditionally, cause oriented groups like Gabriela, a national alliance of women's organizations, are holding massive protest actions during SONA to present their version of the real state of the nation and and their respective sectors' agenda. This year, Gabriela along with other sectoral groups, protested the attempts of Arroyo's allies in Congress to change the constitution that may pave the way for Arroyo to remain in power beyond the end of her term on June 2010.

While rendering services in the community, Gabriela organizers and members are also taking the opportunity  to organize the women in the community. Gabriela's health program in Muntinlupa and Taguig, which is  supported by the Belgian NGO Third World Relief Fund, has not only provided concrete health services but is also very useful tool in organizing women for addressing other (women's) issues..

Organizing through health
Gabriela chapters in Muntinlupa and Taguig began as health teams. Health team members were the first one recruited as health is one of the most pressing concerns in the communities. Most people, especially children, have respiratory problems because of the quality of air. Barangay (village) Cupang where Gabriela is organizing sits in an industrial zone south of Manila. Communities are sandwiched between factories which emit smoke and other harmful particles into the air.

Cupang is made up of several worker's communities. But even though potential sources of livelihood are just nearby, residents find it hard to look for stable jobs. Most factories hire only contractual workers to avoid paying worker' benefits and higher salary for regular workers. This makes organizing quite difficult because   most residents are either busy working, looking for work or moving out to other communities once work is found elsewhere.

The regularity of health-related activities sustain the interest of members and keep them actively participating. In Tuklas, herbal medicine preparation and cooking is scheduled on Wednesdays. In Sitio West Kabulusan, health team members offer free blood pressure check up every Sunday.

To strengthen their commitment, on the other hand, the organizers are raising the awareness and consciousness of the members through educational and issue discussions. Health orientation is given to members, most especially to the health team members to equip them not only with skills but also the capacity to analyze the health situation of their community vis-a-vis the government's role in upholding their right to health.

Through the health program, women members are trained in basic health work skills such as getting medical history and vital signs, treatment of common cough and cold, herbal medicine and first aid. Often sidelined because of the hierarchical domestic relations, mothers who acquire these new skills regain their confidence and self-esteem. Women will then be more willing and will have more energy to join the movement to liberate the women from abuse, injustice and oppression.

Women's orientation is likewise given to members to provide them with a perspective on the root of  the oppression of women in our society. By understanding the cause of their oppression, women will be able to fight back to end it. To free themselves from oppression, Gabriela firmly believes that they have to unite their struggle with other marginalized sectors.

Expansion and contact building

On July 23, Gabriela conducted a Free Bone Scanning activity in their target expansion area in CAA Village in Las Pinas. The said village is the city government's relocation site for communities affected by the demolition in Las Pinas' commercial district.

Gabriela established a contact through a neighborhood association president. It was the neighborhood association president which facilitated the reservation of the venue and other logistical concerns. According to Ate Aviec, they usually tap existing organizations in the communities when exploring new areas to organize. For the Free Bone Scanning activity, Ate Syril of Gabriela contacted a group who works for a milk company to avail of the bone scanning machine and their services for free.


A short program opened the activity with Anakpawis (Toiling Masses) Partylist Representative Joel Maglunsod giving a brief national situation. He discussed with the participants the deplorable plight of the urban poor which he represents in the Congress. He also invited the participants to join the big protest rally for the SONA. While in line and waiting for their turn to be checked up, Gabriela organizers discussed with them the health situation in urban poor communities and linked this to the Arroyo government's neglect of people's welfare. The discussions gave the organizers a glimpse of the sentiments, concerns and issues of the people in this particular community.

Around 250 residents of CAA avail of the free services. More than half of those who participated filled up membership forms distributed during the registration. The organizers ran out of Gabriela identification cards for new members because they did not the anticipate the eager reception of CAA residents.

The health program is very useful in establishing a relationship with community leaders. Because most people in urban poor communities are deprived of basic services supposedly provided by the government, community leaders like the idea of health services for the poor. Lest be misconstrued as dole out, Ate Aviec explains to community leaders the concept of establishing health teams. The activity also served as a venue  to recruit health team members. Health trainings and discussions were immediately scheduled to sustain the momentum.



Commitment in organizing

A day before the Bone Scanning Activity, I accompanied Ate Ana to Sitio West Kabulusan to meet with the health team members for updating and monitoring. The community of West Kabulusan is located along the banks of a creek at the opposite side of the superhighway. Seven health members attended the brief meeting. The group checked the status of their planned activities.

A health team member failed to attend the meeting because she had to take care of her mother-in-law who had a stroke and had to look for money for the hospitalization and medication. We visited the member's house and Ate Ana gave her a referral form and instructed her how to avail of the assistance.

Health workers can only manage simple illnesses like cough and colds. But for complicated cases, they had to take the patients to the hospital. Without enough money, hospitalization is a burden for poor families even in public hospitals. To address this concern, Gabriela health teams have devised a referral system as an assistance to the patient's family.

Patients referred by Gabriela used to enjoy Gabriela Women's Party's (GWP) Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) which it alloted for indigent patients' hospital fees. However, because GWP is a critic of the current administration, it's allocation had been cut. Currently, health teams are coordinating with local government officials, congressmen and senators for assistance. Often times, health team members accompany patients when getting assistance to be make sure they are attended by doctors and hospital workers.

Apart from their health woes, they also inquired on each other's disposition and situation. In urban poor communities, health is only part of so many concerns. Because poverty has corrupted the culture in urban poor communities, anti-social activities such as gambling and drinking abound. Ate Ana has to be patient in convincing the people to attend activities like protest actions. She has to help the people resolve their personal problems and even squabbles among neighbors. For her to be effective, she has to be well integrated in the community. In order for her to help them organize themselves, she has to understand their situation very well and also for the community feel that their one in struggle.

Organizing in the communities does not only mean providing services. It also entails sincerity, dedication, commitment and thorough grasp of the people's culture and the complexity of their problems. Genuine service is provided through empowering the people who have long been silenced and abused. And only though organizing, can women, along with other marginalized sectors in our society, realize the true sense of empowerment.

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