CAR, Region 1’s ‘Invisible’ Women Farmers

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BUGUIAS, Benguet – Highlander and lowlander Filipinas – and their counterparts nationwide – are on the cusp of March, officially recognized as Women’s Month or National Women’s History Month, and they bring up from the archives an old Asian saying that states, “Women hold up half of the sky,” which is incessantly and significantly true even nowadays in both urban and rural landscapes in Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) and Region 1.

In rural settings   like Buguias, Loo, Kapangan in Benguet Province and Naguillian, Pugo, Rosario in La Union Province, a simple question often circulates among rural dwellers whenever they hear March being referred to as women’s month: “Apay nga Marso ket bulan dagiti babbae?”  (Why is March women’s month?).

Re-phrased, is the month of March important to history of women or is it just a random month assigned for women?

For answer, it involves a little bit of coincidence and a little bit of history.

International Women’s Day is recognized as March 8, observed in some form since 1911. In 1975, it was officially commemorated by the United Nations (UN). Two years later in 1977, it was officially recognized by the UN.

On the other hand, Women’s History Month which is also highlighted in March, has long been observed by many nations like Australia, United Kingdom and the United States. Other countries in Asia, like the Philippines, followed suit.

In the Philippines, the first week of March has been declared Women’s Week and March 8 as Women’s Rights and International Peace Day by virtue of Presidential Proclamation No. 224, series of 1988 and Republic Act 6949, which states, among others, “An Act to declare March 8 of every year as special working holiday to be known as National Women’s Day/Month.”

Interestingly, before Presidential Proclamation No. 224 and RA 6949 came into being, a government agency established in 1975 and known as National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women was tasked to ensure commemoration of the holidays dedicated to women, until such time that the proclamation became a policy and the RA was passed by Congress.

The above, in a nutshell, answers the query of many rural folks in the highlands and lowlands and represents the time of every year when the role of women becomes highlighted in the public consciousness.

Public consciousness about women’s role holding up half of the sky was captured succinctly by Department of Health – Cordillera Administrative Region (DOH-CAR) assistant director Dr. Amelita Pangilinan when she said Monday: “I would like to always look at it as women being partners of men in development, making a home, rearing up children and nation-building.”

Dr. Pangilinan knows whereof she speaks. For two decades having officially worked alongside her at DOH-CAR, Pangilinan, in dedicating her labors rural folks in highland Cordillera, had always held that human rights of women and the girl-child are inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights.

If one is to grasp the message of Dr. Pangilinan, she likes to bring a across a note that women’s rights are fundamental rights that include the right to participate fully as equal partners in all aspects of life.

And that Dr. Pangilinan’s hopes include the recognition of, and respect for, these rights is the keystone of equality between women and men and, by the same token, to the advancement of women’s role in the Cordillera as well as Philippine society in all spheres.

Pangilinan’s thoughts reverberate in a grip the role of women in the agricultural landscapes in Cordillera and the lowlands and who are “invisible” yet are dynamic actresses in helping address food security and nutrition for the general populace, as well as being house keepers.

In the words of Delia Payaket, from Abatan, Buguias, Benguet, a pretty lady who hopes to get married soon after this pandemic, who said, “We have one foot in our homes and one foot in the garden.” Garden, means to the Benguet farmers, the lands they till to grow highland vegetables.

Anselma Cosme, also from Buguias and long drawn into agricultural work, said, “Every day is a busy day divided into doing home chores, helping in farming work, taking care of family members; yet we manage somehow.”

Selina Lamsis, from Buguias and a senior   college student in Baguio City but confined to stay in her hometown and help in the agricultural work due to the pandemic, pondered, “Sir, I wonder if the contributions Cordillera and lowland women make to the food-producing capacity of CAR and Region1 are recognized? My thoughts only. . .”

Sadly, often it’s not. In the field of agriculture, “Women have been especially invisible,” tersely said the Philippine Scientist Magazine, a respected journal of tropical agriculture and related science.

“Philippine Women’s actual contribution to food production and rural economy remains undervalued, if not invisible,” the journal found out.

If the gauge to women in the agricultural sector holding up half of the sky will be measured, the Philippine Scientist Magazine noted, “In the Philippines, women provide up to half the labor input in rice production.”

On the other hand, the Philippine Statistics Authority – Cordillera Administrative Region (PSA-CAR) found that while males dominate agricultural operations, female household members directly engaged in agricultural activity rose to 129.9 thousand, outnumbering male counterparts by 45.7 thousand.

Cordillera and lowland rural women undertake a variety of production and caring activities. They are active actresses in direct agricultural work, traders of agricultural and fishery products or engage in agri-micro manufacturing enterprises.

Fortunately, many policymakers, health professionals and educators in CAR and Region 1 have come out underscoring the role of women as decision-makers in the household.

Arsenia Mendez, employed at the Department of Education – Cordillera Administrative Region (DepEd-CAR) and assigned at Itogon, Benguet, captured the role of women which Asian agricultural scientists were slow to recognize, in her statement, which, apparently also echoes the conviction of Dr. Pangilinan.

Mendez said last  Monday: “A woman was designated by God to be the heart of a family she builds. A comforter, friend, partner in home building. In any failure and success of every goal, a woman is involved.”

Role of Cordillera and lowland women are presently growing with urbanization. As men are drawn to the cities to find jobs, women are left behind to manage families and make decisions on the farms.

And Mendez explained how the women do it when she said: “She is strong, somewhat weak physically, and can endure everything in the name of love. Love her and she will love you more. We deserve respect and appreciation. Without us, the world and everything will not be in their position. Men are not completed without women.”

Some social scientists have fallen into the trap of, when doing surveys on rural poverty, the interview is sometimes narrowed only on men as “head of household,” and the occupation of the wife is automatically recorded as “housewife,” notwithstanding the fact that she provides unpaid labor in almost all agri-related activities. Women’s contribution to household income is also unrecorded.

Mendez happened to capture this scenario when she said, “Our role in the family, community, in every aspect, cannot be compensated, immeasurable and without compare. Because without us, the world is not balanced by looking at our influence in the family and the community as a whole.”

Dr. Myrna Cabotaje, Undersecretary of Health, Department of Health (DOH) was contacted Monday regarding women’s month and a message came back that profoundly stated: W – Wonderful wife; O – Outstanding friend; M – Marvelous daughter; A: – Adorable sister, and N: – Nurturing mother.

Cabotaje was former director of DOH-CAR.

Probably, the greatest honor to women/ mothers this columnist heard and witnessed was in 2019. On assignment in Rosario, La Union, he happened to stop by a field where there, in an open nipa hut, a young lady, holding a sharp and gleaming scythe, was resting.

He introduced himself and the lady introduced herself as Loida Balledo. In the midst of conversation, Loida, in answer   why she was working in the fields alone, said her father had been disabled a long time  and  had to stay at home. Her brothers were working in construction.

Asked about her mother, Loida looked at this columnist for long then spoke mysteriously, “Ayaten tayo kuma a kanayon ti nanang tayo ta ni nanag ko ket kadwanan ni Apo Dios ket pirme iliw ko kenyana inaldaw-aldaw.”  (Always cherish your mother because mine has gone forever and I miss her every day.)

Loida then bowed her head as she tried to hide the tears that coursed down her cheeks. This columnist got speechless, hearing the lady.

Gently, ever gently, this columnist placed his hand on the heaving shoulder of Loida to comfort her as Loida finally raised her tear-stricken face towards him  in gratitude of relief.

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