Congratulations to our modern day Gabrielas!
LONDON – Filipina migrants from all walks of life united for an open forum to mark International Women’s Day (IWD) last March 8, aiming to create a platform for issues affecting women in the UK and the Philippines.
Dozens of female activists from various UK-based organizations gathered at the Hinsley Room in Victoria on March 9, in a bid to openly discuss and raise awareness of women’s rights and migrant issues of the day.
“We need to move forward to fight for our rights as women and citizens, we can’t just stand in the sidelines,” said Sheila Tilan from the Filipino Domestic Workers Association UK (FDWA-UK), which co-hosted the event with non-profit support group Kanlungan.
“It’s important for us to organize. We should know our rights. We have to mobilize and let all women from the UK to the Philippines to join in the campaign.”
Women’s rights have come a long way since the start of the feminist movement in the late 1900s, but for many women around the world, including vulnerable Filipina migrants, the struggle for equality, safety, and respect remains an ongoing battle.
This struggle was evident in “Au Pair”, an observational documentary screened at the event, which follows the lives of a small group of Filipina migrants in Denmark.
Released in 2011, the short film exposed the various problems faced by migrant women including job insecurity, legal issues, discrimination, and even loneliness away from family and friends.
Some of the Filipina migrants at the event have had similar experiences, including Zenaida Cabanatan, a 52-year-old housekeeper who was allegedly abused by controlling employers who tried to restrict her civil and employment rights.
“I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone. I didn’t have a day off. I worked long hours even until 12 midnight. They didn’t pay me enough either. And when I want to send money to my family in the Philippines, they would refuse and insist that they do it themselves,” she revealed.
Cabanatan, a Quezon City native who has been working in the UK for 14 years, claimed that her remittances were often delayed, which sometimes affected the life of her dependent child in the Philippines.
Furthermore, her employers allegedly attempted to send her back to the Philippines permanently with a one-way plane ticket, but she quickly realized the plot and managed to return to the UK.
She is now in the process of lodging a formal complaint against her former employers with the help of Kanlungan and Citizens’ Advice Bureau.
Speaking to ABS-CBN Europe, she added: “I was shocked. I kept wondering why they would so something like this to me. And then I found out through some advisers that I didn’t have insurance, which my employers keep a secret from me.”
Cabanatan’s story is just one of a number of cases involving vulnerable Filipino migrants in the UK, many of whom happen to be women.
According to the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA), women made up the majority of Filipino migrants since 1993, peaking at 74% in 2004.
On average, 35,892 Filipino women emigrate each year, alongside 23,993 men, based on statistics from the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO) between 1981-2011.
Most migrants work abroad in search of a better future for themselves and their families, but many will find that life away from home is not always easy.
“We really need to discuss the issues. We are affected by so many issues, from work to the legal framework. We have lots to consider and I’m hoping that this forum will be a wake-up call for us,” said Florence Cayboen, a 47-year-old domestic worker from Baguio.
She added: “The hardest part is to organize women here in the UK, it’s not easy. I hope this could be a real starting point for us to unite as Filipino women of all ages and profession.”
Inspired by IWD, the group agreed to work towards launching a UK chapter of the Philippine women’s party Gabriella later this year.
Actress and campaigner Monique Wilson, who has been collaborating with Gabriella since 1999, attended the forum to lend her support and expertise.
“Filipinas are leaders. We just have to be given an opportunity and a platform to really find our voices, and to really exercise that voice,” said Wilson, who was elected as Director of International Affairs for Gabriella in 2012.
“What Gabriella represents is fighting for not just women’s rights and women’s freedom, but also national democracy which affects women in the end. Gabriella has been growing rapidly, it’s got international and regional chapters, and I think it’s time we have one in the UK because we have so many amazing Filipina migrant women here, and we have to continue to fight for issues that affect us, not only here but also back home.”
For the female activists, the aims are simple: to find a platform for women’s issues; to improve women’s rights through equality, respect and support; and to secure a better future for the next generations of young women.
And with the seed in place, only time will tell if their efforts bear fruit for the cause.