“We hope President Rodrigo Duterte would listen to us.”
By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
PANDI, Bulacan – The International Day of Working Women on March 8 saw thousands of urban poor launch #OccupyBulacan, a mass action to utilize idle government housing units in Pandi, Bulacan. Most of those at the frontline were urban poor mothers, whose poverty and desperation to have a home for their family urged them to join an unprecedented assertion of the right to housing.
Shirley Bravo, 56, had endured decades of hardship and insecurity living in a flood-prone house on someone else’s land. Along with her group Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap (Kadamay), she mustered the courage and took the chance to assert what they know to be a basic human right: the right to social services such as housing.
For the past 24 years, Bravo and her family have been squatting on a rice field in Bagong Bayan, Bocaue, Bulacan. They live in a hut which she and her husband built after they got married. In exchange for staying on the land, her husband works in the rice field, gets one cavan of harvested palay for every 10, and earns about P30,000 ($597) every harvest season or twice a year.
Meanwhile, Bravo occasionally works as a manicurist and seamstress. They have six children; the two older ones were able to finish a two-year technical course and are currently working.
But her husband cannot regularly farm now because the land is submerged in water during high tide, and so is their house. Her husband turned to construction work for P200 ($4) per day, less than the minimum wage. Bravo gets irregular income from giving manicure services, and this made life severely difficult for them. Her four other children were not able to go to college.
Bravo is a leader of the Kadamay chapter in Bagong Bayan. Contrary to the claim that they are “anarchic,” she said they did not come to the area to simply claim the house they want. She said they occupied only the houses that were vacant.
She said they plan to stay in the house that they are presently occupying in Pandi Residences 3 because they too are taxpayers, who fund government housing projects. “We will fight for this (house) even if they (National Housing Authority) serve eviction notices,” she told Bulatlat in an interview.
“This house was so dusty and the grass was all over,” she said pointing to the area by the doorstep.
She also clarified that they did not entice people to join by telling them that Kadamay will give them houses. She explained that what they are doing is an assertion of their rights, and people agreed to join. Some of them, she said, are in communities facing looming demolition. “No one was coerced. They also have a choice to leave or stay to support and fight with us,” she said.
Bravo comes from a family of farm workers in Roxas City, Capiz. “We had a difficult life there. We worked in the farm all day for P50,” she said. She was only able to finish Grade 6. At 14 years old, she decided to leave home to try for “greener pastures” in Manila.
In Manila, she worked in different jobs under different employers until she met her husband, and the rest is history.
Driven by difficult life in the province
Ruth Sinadhan, 27, has a similar story of trying her luck in the capital. She came from a fisherfolk family in Iligan City in Mindanao. When she was 18, she came with her family to Manila. But they found life to be just as hard, and her parents and four other siblings decided to go back to Iligan. She stayed because she was working as a helper then.
She later got married and started her own family, staying with her husband’s relatives in St. Martha relocation site in Bocaue, Bulacan. She used to take on odd jobs to augment the family income. Her husband is a construction worker earning P300 ($6) a day. At present, she stays at home taking care of her two children, ages six and three years old.
Sinadhan said she tried to avail of the National Housing Authority (NHA) program last year, but she was told that there are no available houses for them.
With her children in tow, Sinadhan went to Pandi Residences 3 determined to fight for their right to decent housing. “It was hard living with a relative so I decided to come with them. Like them, I dream of having my own house too,” she said.
Living under a bridge
Marissa Hernandez, 48, a mother of five, should have been a beneficiary of a government relocation program in 2009, but missed her chance to be relocated from her home under the bridge in Sta. Maria, Bulacan. Her family was not included in the list because they were not at home when the government team took the names of families in the area.
“Hindi na kami nakahabol, kasi isang araw lang daw yun, hindi na sila bumalik (We missed it because they only went once and did not return,” she told Bulatlat. It was in 2009 after typhoon Ondoy devastated Metro Manila and nearby provinces.
They left their shanty under the bridge in Sta. Maria and squatted in a vacant lot in Meycauayan, still in Bulacan. Their house, also a makeshift, is the only one that was built in the said area. There is no electricity, although there is a deep well that serves as their source of water, but they buy potable water. She said the owner of the lot allowed them to stay temporarily.
She, too, hopes for a secure home, which is why she joined the occupation, and also because of her son who is a member of Kadamay.
An organized mass action
Niña Nuevo, 44, said they managed to enter the gates because they came in numbers in Pandi Residences 3 on March 9. But, she said, it was clear to them that only vacant houses would be occupied and not one residence would be bothered. She refuted reports that they are “anarchic.”
“Whenever they (residents) told us that the house has an owner, we didn’t occupy it,” said Nuevo. She lives at the St. Martha relocation site after their home in Tondo, Manila was demolished when the government implemented a road-widening project in Road 10.
But the house in St. Martha is not theirs, and they are renting it for P1,000 ($20) a month. She tagged along her two children in Pandi. Her husband, a construction worker is deployed in another town.
To survive, Nuevo said they help each other in whatever they need. “Parang Kadamay, nag dadamayan kami sa isa’t isa. Kung wala yung isa, magbibigay kami; kung kami naman ang wala may nagbibigay din (Just like Kadamay, we help each other out. When one is in need of something, we give what we can, and vice versa),” she said.
The residents in the site are not antagonistic to the occupiers, and some sell food to them, although some merchandise are expensive.
They have been in Pandi for almost three weeks now, but Nuevo knows that their battle is not yet over. On March 20, government officials gave them another seven days to vacate the area, or they will be forcibly evicted. But even then, they vowed not to leave the occupied houses – even if it means enduring lack of potable water and other necessities – until the government finally heeds their call for free and mass housing.
“Duterte promised housing for the poor, that’s why I voted for him even if Mar Roxas is also from Roxas City,” said Bravo.