We asked Maria what she wanted us to do when we left, the jail, and eventually, the Philippines for the United States. “You must speak about the Human Security Act [the Philippines version of our Patriot Act],” she said, “You must tell them that the government is going after whoever they want, whenever they want. They can do anything. You must support us, expose and counter the laws that are oppressing political detainees.”
“Tell them about the women here. I speak for them; you speak for us.”
BY ONA K MIRKINSON
Posted by Bulatlat
In the summer of 2007, I traveled from the United States to South East Asia to attend the tenth annual international solidarity women’s conference hosted by GABRIELA, a national alliance of women’s organizations in the Philippines. One of the primary concerns of the gathering was to address the growing human rights violations plaguing the nation since the “election” of president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2001. After the initial conference and subsequent exposure trip to the southern island of Iloilo, an area and community that had been recently devastated by an “accidental” oil spill, I was sent, along with my sister and a number of other women in our US based organization, Gabriela Network, to the region of Batangas where the government had been targeting, harassing, and killing activists on a daily basis.
The only security at the entrance of the Batangas Provincial Jail in the Philippines was a guard sitting behind an old school desk. He gave a cursory glance through our belongings and the two bags of groceries and toiletries we had brought for Maria, the woman inside. There was no body search, no electronic security devices. They didn’t even ask my sister and me, two white women traveling with a group of Filipinas, for identification.
We had spent the night before in the regional GABRIELA office listening to first hand accounts of the political repression that had swept the community. Nearly 1000 activists had been assassinated; over 100 women had been killed just for belonging to political organizations that challenged the government’s policies and actions regarding land reform, militarization, jobs, education, healthcare, and national democracy. The women in the office had called out the names of their sisters, names we in Gabriela Network had been painting on tombstones back home in the US in an effort to expose the US backed government repression for the last three years. Maria was one of those women.
Maria had been forcibly abducted on her way home from work three months earlier. A group of men in Air Force uniforms, holding a warrant for arrest with an inaccurate address, grabbed her, shoved her first into a waiting van, then transferred her into a small car, then finally into a pick-up truck. After an interrogation that yielded no results, they informed her that she was being charged with a murder/theft case from 1986 in Batangas. She then surfaced in the Provincial Jail. Her arraignment had been set for August 22, 2007, a few weeks after our visit.
The visiting area was an outdoor hallway fitted with two picnic benches. The prison courtyard where the men were held was only an arms length away, separated from us by a set of bars that extended from the ground up about twelve feet and stretched out the length of the corridor. Tarps stretched over sticks and poles around the outdoor pen, formed a shantytown of makeshift beds and sari sari stores and one-man tents covered in transparent plastic. A blond angel blowing a golden horn presided over the entire scene. Men squatted and smoked, rested out over cots, their shirts and underclothes hung from wires tied to corrugated tin roofs.
A guard brought Maria out to our table. She nodded at us, then looked down the hallway to another woman prisoner, dressed in thin cotton short shorts, pushing the top half of her body toward a guard.
She smiled at us then reached her hand out to our guide and began speaking in Tagalog. Someone whispered a translation in my ear.
“I’m being locked up while they review my case. No bail,” she said. “I’m being treated well for now because I am considered a political prisoner, they’re scared. They won’t let you see the women’s conditions for fear that someone will write about them. I will tell you,” she said, “but you cannot use my name.”
The guards stood close to our group in the concrete hallway and listened. Our guide eyed a cassette player propped up on the chalk holder of a large piece of slate that recorded the number of inmates present at any given moment. That day there were 627. Thirty-nine of them were women.
We learned that it was not unusual for prisoners to be held without bail and, mostly, without ever going to trial. Her arraignment was in fact the swiftest ever, occurring after one and a half months, and only due to the pressure of her fellow Human Rights advocates on the outside.
Most of the other women prisoners don’t have these kinds of friends and are considered lifers. They’re held on drug charges for buying and selling Shabu – a form of marijuana and methamphetamine.
“The police supply all the jails with Shabu,” Maria whispered, “It’s very secret. Some of the guards don’t even know, some let it slip by. Some of the women Shabu users go the houses of guards to smoke or inhale the drug.”
But none of this will ever change. “They have created a community that they can control economically in every way,” Maria said, “It is the Prison Industrial Complex at work.”
She went on to describe the women’s quarters as a room 14 by 18 feet, about one quarter the size of the yard beside us. Thirty-nine women slept in bunk beds in that room, two to each single top and bottom bed. There was one toilet. Maria looked into one of the bags we had brought filled with green vegetables, soap, sanitary napkins and shampoo.
“If no one brings vegetables, we don’t taste vegetables. We get one cup of rice for the whole day and one main meal of fish. For many months we couldn’t even eat the fish, it tasted of soil.”
In exchange for better treatment, including more food, calls outside, a bath, private time, the women are forced to have sexual relationships with the guards. This all began when the guards started physically abusing the women. During the beatings, they suggested that the women “befriend” them in exchange for safety. In addition, the guards offer their services as pimps in exchange for drugs, better treatment and favors. They charge the men money then turn their backs while they sneak into the women’s quarters. Some women who have been there for ten years have children s with the guards. When the Provincial government comes to visit, they hide all of them.
“You must not blame the women who are prostituted,” she told us, “They have resigned to their path, in jail forever, they have no support. If you gave these women jobs, housing and education, they wouldn’t be in jail in the first place.”
Maria encircled her tiny wrist with a thumb and index finger. She nodded toward the yard, at a woman who was on the verge of entering a plastic tent.
“There are particular ways that the system of oppression and the government repression affects us. You see,” she said averting her eyes to the guard beside her, “they target our very womanhood as something to sell, trade, torture.”
She said that the men being housed in the yard were spillovers from the general population; that there were more male prisoners on the other side of the corridor that we sat in. Maria told a story about watching one man after another have seizures in the middle of the outdoor pen in broad daylight.
“They say it was from drinking the water, that the water was contaminated with rat urine. The men just died and no one did anything about it.”
“It was even worse, before I came,” she continued, “But my presence and connection with the movement has made them change a little. GABRIELA came to visit. Then they forced the Governor to come. This is why I am hopeful.”
We had been there for an hour before Maria even began to speak about herself, her own case, her treatment and her family. We learned that she had three children age 18 to 24.
“When I first came here they were coming all the time, but it’s very expensive, so now they stay at home. My daughter in law is about to give birth.” She said, moved to tears for the first time during our visit.
“Why is it me?” She asked. “My children are the ones who are counting on me I am the one who was working.”
Her daughter had begged the judge [for leniency], “I am pregnant, I need my mother.”
But the judge kept her imprisoned on a 30-year old charge that she had already been cleared of in 1988. The alleged crime was a 1986 robbery and murder. A warrant had been put out in 1988. Maria had been arrested and then subsequently cleared. In fact she had been allowed to leave the country in the 1990’s. Her abduction was just one in a series of operations in which the government targeted community activists in this particular region.
“It was a strategic plan,” Maria said, “to terrorize the community, to send a message to dissenters.”
This message was partially effective. Members of Maria’s community who would have stepped forward to testify on her behalf are now silent. Her family, who could provide an official alibi, had refused to come forward.
“My family is afraid,” ‘Maria said, “They are starting to blame me and my political work for my incarceration, even though they know I’m innocent.”
“I taught the women of my town to be strong,” Maria said, “And I know my purpose is to strengthen the women inside these walls. I am here to speak out on the conditions of the women. I don’t want them to see me cry, I don’t want my children to see me cry. I know it is my job to keep our morale up.”
The guards hovered close watching us and watching her as we leaned into each other, over the rickety table, over the ocean, over the divide. We took her hands in ours and she let us.
“It’s when women like you come,” she said, crying and closing her eyes, “During my last arraignment there was a lot of support in the courtroom. My lawyer is hopeful.”
We asked Maria what she wanted us to do when we left, the jail, and eventually, the Philippines for the United States.
“You must speak about the Human Security Act [the Philippines version of our Patriot Act],” she said, “You must tell them that the government is going after whoever they want, whenever they want. They can do anything. You must support us, expose and counter the laws that are oppressing political detainees.”
We collected our notebooks and turned our attention to the yard. The guards’ laughter was right behind us.
“Tell them about the women here. I speak for them; you speak for us.” Posted by Bulatlat.comBulatlat)>
“ Women were the first to be oppressed, and will be the last to be liberated when class oppression ceases. So the test of whether class oppression still exists is if women’s oppression still exists or not.” — Hisila Yami