Philippines: A Tour of Poverty
Women’s Feature Service
By Ross Harper Alonso
Manila (WFS) -- Carlos Celdran is called the Pied Piper of Manila because of the number of people who queue to join his revolutionary tours around Intramuros and Binondo. He regales guests with historical trivia imparted with tons of humor and style as he leads them through the narrow streets of this historical city.
He admits it is impossible to hide the poverty. “My guests see the poverty throughout the tour,” Celdran explains. “This is why it can’t just be about tourism. I had to squeeze in a social development angle somewhere since I stare at poverty in the face daily. I decided to do my bit to advocate family planning by distributing free condoms and birth control pills whenever we walked past squatter communities. I’ve been doing this since 2003.”
In the beginning, this amused the people living in the countless shanties. The flamboyant Spanish mestizo in a barong Tagalog, wearing a black top hat or a salakot had become a common sight around the walled city and provided the residents with either a bit of entertainment or just something to be curious about.
“Who do you think eventually walks boldly up to me after I’ve shouted long and loud enough that I was giving out free birth control pills and condoms?” he challenges. “No, it’s not the shirtless, unemployed men sitting around, not tattooed teenage boys with blonde mohawks and their girlfriends or the prostitutes. It’s the mothers carrying half naked babies with malnourished toddlers at their heels who ask for any of the contraceptives.”
Interacting with Urban Poor Women
“Ang gusto ko pills, Kuya. Pwede makahingi ng apat na box?” (I like pills. May I ask for 4 boxes?) asks Evelyn, 26. “Ayaw kasi ng asawa ko ng condom.” (My husband doesn’t like to use condoms.) She looks older than her actual age and roughly introduces her five children, born barely a year apart. Her husband has been jobless for years but occasionally works at the pier to buy food that lasts for a few days. “It is impossible to use natural methods because my husband beats me when I refuse to have sex with him especially if he’s been drinking. This is the way of life of many wives here,” Evelyn admits in Filipino grasping the boxes tightly. “I can’t feed any more children since I’ve become too weak to accept laundry jobs. My children are hungry, naked and have never gone to school.” she adds bitterly.
By now a small crowd of noisy children, women and a few men have gathered around Celdran but he stops himself from handing a box of pills to a pretty and petite girl. “Naku Miss, you’re too young to be using things like this. You should be in school,” he chides. “I’m 17 and I already have two children,” giggles the girl. “I can’t afford to buy contraceptives but I don’t want to give birth again because it’s very painful,” she says then gestures to an adolescent boy grinning from a stack of rusted drums. “My partner is embarrassed and doesn’t want his friends to know I force him to use a condom now.”
Before Celdran could reply, an excited woman taps him on the arm, “Thank you for all of these,” she smiles holding up an assortment of condoms and pills. “I just got married but I don’t want to get pregnant and stop working. My husband doesn’t make much so I have to help him save. This is a big help to us.”
Dinlay, 37, stood out one day in a crowd. Oblivious to the noise and shoving going on around her, she continued to read the literature on the box and study the birth control pills. Despite her small frame, she manages to carry a baby with one arm and still stand sturdy while several young children pulled relentlessly at her t-shirt. She lives in a dark shack deep inside a squatter community one street away from the San Agustin Church with her husband and their 10 children ages 14 to six months.
Dinlay laughs as close to a dozen children gather quickly around her. “My husband refuses to wear a condom and use the withdrawal method even if his job as a tricycle driver barely feeds us all,” she shares. “After my sixth child, I tried to take the birth control pills a health worker gave me but it made me nauseous. I am afraid of the pill’s side effects but I want to take them even if I have no money to buy food because I don’t want any more children. ” In her desperation, Dinlay pleads for Celdran to give her money for a ligation. “A few of the women here have had ligations done for P500 in a small hospital,” she explains. “They said it was painless and fast. It’s also much easier than asking our husbands to have vasectomies.”
Women Wanting Control
The women Celdran comes across are aware artificial contraceptives are not allowed by the Catholic Church but they insist it is not only impossible for them to practice natural methods of birth control but also to ask help from the church to feed their growing families. “The previous mayor of Manila stopped the health centers from giving free ligations and contraceptives,” laments Evelyn. “Most of the husbands in our squatter community don’t care if their wives give birth yearly as long as they have sex when they want. They don’t involve themselves with child rearing or family planning. All these are left to the women.”
These are some of the people Celdran has learned to deal with on his tours. “They are people without the means and education or maybe even too lazy to improve their lives but men and women come out for contraceptives. They understand these prevent pregnancies and it’s their decision. I don’t force anyone to take them,” he clarifies. “The tourists who see what I do are happy and relieved someone is taking the initiative to address the city’s overpopulation problem. Some even make a special donation to support my humble campaign, which of course is very encouraging.”
Celdran uses his personal funds to buy the contraceptives to give away. On an average he spends more than Php 15,000 a year on Php 30.00 birth control pills and Php 10.00 per box of condoms.
“Believe it or not, no one has given me any problems or criticized me about any of this,” he points out. “I take it as a good sign that I’ve somehow succeeded in raising the level of awareness about sexual responsibility in this part of the city at least.” WFS
Side Bar Story
In celebration of World Population Day on July 11, 2008, the Reproduction Health Advocacy Network (RHAN ), a coalition of 35 non-government and people’s organizations championing reproductive health and reproductive rights held a Family Planning Fair in coordination with the Manila City Health Office in Tondo. Not only did hundreds of women troop to the fair for free artificial contraceptives, family planning services and referrals for ligations but men willingly underwent vasectomies.