BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Filipino Families Struggle With Motherhood Exodus

My latest story for

Being both mother and father to the children is difficult, says an unemployed man whose wife works as a domestic helper in Dubai. The feminization of migration leaves more families affected by what one researcher calls the commodification of motherhood.

Jimmy Gamad; his wife works as a domestic helper in Saudi Arabia.
Credit: Photo by Iris Gonzales

MANILA, Philippines (WOMENSENEWS)-- Maria Juliana, 4 years old, is crying and whining; her nose is now runny and her voice hoarse. It is 7 in the evening and she hasn't had dinner. There's no food on the table yet. She is tired, hungry and fussy now. And she is calling out to her father.But 52-year-old Edgardo Agido is checking on Maria's sister, 7-year-old Samantha Nicole, who is still out playing hide and seek with the neighborhood gang under the moonlight.

Agido and his children live in the outskirts of the University of the Philippines, a state-owned school in the northeast of Quezon City. Their neighborhood is a labyrinthine slum where families crowd into dwellings that are made out of concrete or a hodgepodge of plywood, cardboard and whatever else can be found.

Agido's eldest, 9-year-old Albert, is helping in the kitchen.

It's a typical night. It can be chaotic at times, says Agido but he's the only one in charge for the past year, since his 34-year-old wife Melona left for Dubai to work as a domestic helper.

"I couldn't go. I'm already over age so my wife had to go," he says. Agido used to work for a water distribution company but he was dismissed after a change in ownership. He has filed an illegal dismissal case, which is pending with the courts.

Being both mother and father to the children can be difficult. And lonely, he says. "It's really very sad because my wife is not around."

Gathering the children for dinner is a breeze compared to when they are sick. "Sometimes, when one of the them is sick, it can be so stressful. I would especially wish that my wife was around," he says.
Melona Agido is part of a global trend, writes Zuhal Yesilyurt Gunduz, associate professor in the International Relations Department at TED University in Ankara, Turkey, in a recent paper on the feminization of migration. "In the past it was mainly men who went to countries far away; women came as followers. In the last 20 years, however, this has changed so much that today over half of all migrants are women."

Gunduz notes that female migrants are often the main or sole wage earners of their families.

As a result, millions of children of migrants are forced to settle for what Gunduz calls the commodification of motherhood. "A generation of children has grown up without their mothers at their sides. The consequences of long separation periods, especially in very young ages, can be devastating," she writes.

Global social and demographic trends in developed countries, such as aging populations, are driving the feminization of migration, Gunduz writes.

And Filipino families are particularly affected, she notes. "Not only do many employers explicitly seek foreign women, specific nationalities are often sought-after, such as Filipinos."

Domestic workers from multiple countries are at U.N. headquarters in New York to push for adoption of international labor standards and labor projections for domestic workers during the March 9-20 annual assembly of the Commission on the Status of Women.

But improved labor standards won't necessarily help the children left behind.
"Studies reveal that migrants' children are ill more often than other children; they experience resentment, bewilderment and indifference more than their friends, who live with their mothers. Here we notice injustice at work, linking the emotional deprivation of these children with the surfeit of affection their First World counterparts enjoy--at least ostensibly," Gunduz says in her paper.

In the case of Agido, the family had no choice. "I couldn't find a job here or abroad so my wife had to be the one to go," he says.

Having Skype Helps

Jimmy Gamad, 49 years old, who lives in the same neighborhood, is luckier. He says his children, who are older, do not feel any resentment toward their mother who is in Saudi Arabia working as a domestic helper.

"I think my children are fine. With the help of technology, they are able to talk to their mother," he says. His wife Emma left two years ago.

"We are able to talk to her on Skype so it's OK," says 24-year old Marc Jay, the second of their four children.

The eldest is 27-year-old King J, then 19-year-old Jimlet and 11-year-old Ej.

Their father works as a cook in a school canteen and goes home right after work to check on them.

"He is both father and mother and he is really the best," says Marc Jay.

Gunduz, of TED University in Ankara, says migrants should have a right to family life and to be reunited with their children.

"[I]t is necessary to struggle to guarantee the right of children in all situations to be with their mothers (not to exclude their fathers as well) so that they can share family life again even while the mothers are working," she writes.

Millions Working Overseas

An estimated 10.48 million Filipinos worked overseas as of the end of 2012, an increase of 33,000 from a year earlier, according to the latest available data from the Commission on Overseas Filipinos, the agency tasked to promote and uphold the interests of Filipinos abroad.

As the total number of overseas workers rise, so does women's share of that population, with 46, 940 female Filipina migrant workers registered in 2013 compared to 31,288 males. In the nine-year period between 2004 and 2013 the number of women who registered to work abroad was 466,933; for male counterparts it was 312,456.

Authorities recognized the struggles faced by Filipina migrant workers, especially mothers who are away from their children.

"All these, unfortunately more often than not, translate to exploitation, abuses, dysfunctional families," she said in a speech earlier this month at the Ateneo de Manila University.

The government, she said, will continue its thrust to create jobs at home and make working abroad a choice rather than a necessity. "When Filipinos do choose to work or live abroad, their welfare and protection should still be our priority," Nicolas said.

For international migrants' group Migrante International, the feminization of migration among Filipinas boils down to a weak domestic economy that doesn't offer enough good jobs. The unemployment rate in the Philippines stood at 6 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. Among unemployed people, about 65 percent were males.
Garry Martinez, chairperson of Migrante, says many overseas employers prefer women because women are paid less.

"For example, when I was working in Korea, I was earning $1,500 (a month) but my co-worker, was earning $900 to $1,100," he says.

The disparity, he says, shows how female workers are exploited. "It's also very sad that Filipina migrant workers are unable to take care of their own children because they have to take care of other children in abroad," Martinez says.

And it's equally hard for the children.

"They miss their mother," says Agido.

Iris Gonzales is a journalist based in Manila, the Philippines, who writes about economics, development and humanitarian stories. Some of her work may be read at and

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


I finally found some time to update my website by adding some links to my blog roll as follows: EverdayPhilippines, Sonny Yabao's strange and lonely road, WomenseNews, my voice in the United States for my stories on women, Tammy David's updated site as well as Veejay Villafranca's update site. Enjoy some of these very good reads and visual journeys!

Friday, April 10, 2015

EverydayPhilippines: The ExtraOrdinary in the Everyday

A belated repost of my story on Everyday Philippines for Starweek.  Everyday Philippines is the Instagram project put up by Jes Aznar, Veejay Villafranca and Tammy David, which joins the growing Everyday movement. A big congratulations to the EP crew!

A town elder, in a red cap and white long-sleeved shirt, “reads” the liver and bladder of a newly butchered pig, its blood still splattered on the ground, somewhere in the mountains of Benguet in the northern Philippines.

Boys and girls of different ages, their faces in between the light and shadows of the afternoon sun, gather at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Palo in the Visayan province of Leyte to rehearse a presentation for the visit of Pope Francis.

Inside a Starbucks outlet in Manila, people are queuing for cups of latte as a group of women devotees gather at a table outside it to eat their provisions of food after hearing a mass celebrated by the pope. 

And in a place called Pandacan, in the belly of the Philippine capital of Manila, a story goes that the image of the Santo Niño was recovered from a well near the district’s stone church, built in 1732. The story goes that water from the well resulted in the miraculous healing of the residents and to this day, the people of Pandacan – sinners and devotees alike – celebrate the feast of the Child Jesus every third Sunday of January to honor the Santo Niño.

Welcome to the Philippines, where the most mundane meets the uncanny, where truth reads like fiction and where the ephemeral weaves with age-old traditions.
This is the Philippines and it’s as real as it can get.

Indeed, there’s more to the country than just poverty and politics. The images that paint a more complete and accurate portrayal of what the country is and what it is not are as endless as they are varied.

And this is exactly what Filipino freelance photojournalists Tammy David (, Veejay Villafranca ( and Jes Aznar ( had in mind when they put up 

EverydayPhilippines, an account on photo-sharing site Instagram that shows the everyday life in the Philippines and which joins the growing global Everyday movement inspired by EverydayAfrica.
EverydayAfrica started in 2012 initially as a Tumblr Blog, put up by photographer Peter DiCampo and writer Austin Merill.

The blog, which turned into a big Instagram project and which is now funded by the Pulitzer Center, sought to show what Africa is – beyond the usual stories of disease, war and famine – which mark the common portrayal of the continent.

This landmark project gained the interest of people worldwide and spawned similar Instagram accounts: EverydayIran, EverydayEasternEurope, EverydayMyanmar and also to non-geographic issues such as EverydayClimateChange and EverydayIncarceration, among others.

The EverydayPhilippines project, which officially started on Jan. 1, 2015, joins this global movement as it aims to break the visual stereotype of the Philippines being just another Third World country mired in deep poverty.

The three sat down with STARweek to share the ideas behind the project and what they hope to achieve.

We want to break the stereotypes on the Philippines,” says David, whose works have appeared in both local and foreign publications including the Wall Street Journal.

Breaking the stereotypes applied not only to the audience but to editors around the globe as well.
Villafranca, who works for Getty Images, says the project was also borne out of the difficulty of pitching stories about the country because some Western media have preconceived – or, if you will, simplified – notions of what the Philippines is.

“The Philippines on its own is very rich (but) when you pitch (stories) to the Western media, there are a lot of misconceptions,” says Villafranca.

He notes for instance that some people know the Philippines just for poverty, the Smokey Mountain and Imelda Marcos, issues that made headlines decades ago.

Today, however, there are so many other stories of life in this country of roughly a hundred million people, he says.

And while the age-old issues of poverty and Madame herself still exist, what the three photographers want are for the stories to be given the proper context through the EverydayPhilippines project.

EverydayAfrica’s DiCampo and Villafranca were classmates at the World Press Photo Joop Swart Master Class in 2013. Villafranca remembered the EverydayAfrica project that DiCampo told him about and mentioned it to Aznar and David, who were also familiar with the Instagram account and who also thought of doing it in the Philippines.

The three agreed to formalize it and thus, EverydayPhilippines was born.

How does it work? The rules are simple, says Aznar, whose works appear on the pages of the New York Times.

First and foremost, the project is open to other photographers, whereas some of the other Everyday accounts on Instagram are limited to certain photographers. The photographs must be, as much as possible, phone-camera captured, square-shaped, visually interesting and must have context.

“There are many photographs and stories but what is important is to put the context,” Aznar says.
Photographers can post their photos on their individual Instagram accounts and use the hashtag #EverydayPhilippines.

The three proponents, among the best photographers of their time, then curate the photographs that appear on this hashtag search before reposting these on the EverydayPhilippines account.

“It has to catch attention. It has to be stunning. It has to be arresting,” David says.

And true enough, the result is a visually stunning tapestry of vignettes of life in the Philippines that entices the audience to take a closer look at a nation whose daily life is so rich in history, culture and magic realism.

Just a month old, the project has already attracted the interest of photographers, local and foreigners, young and old alike.

Photojournalism professor Jimmy Domingo, on Instagram via @jimmysunday and who teaches at the Ateneo de Manila University, has contributed to the feed as well as photojournalist Luis Liwanag who is on Instagram via @luisliwanag.

Veteran photojournalist Ben Razon, on Instagram via @stellamylab and who now runs a pub after partially putting down his camera, is shooting again and has contributed to the feed.

Indeed, the project has created a micro-community among photographers, says Villafranca.

“And everyone’s excited to shoot again,” says Aznar.

David stresses that this is not some exclusive camera club and is, instead, a platform where the individual stories of photographers matter.

“You don’t have to shoot a Manila Bay sunset. Or the Sinulog. Your stories matter,” David says.

In the long run, the proponents are excited for bigger projects that EverydayPhilippines may turn into, such as a book or an exhibition. There will also be guest curators and feed take-overs by other photographers, says Aznar. The project is simultaneously on blog site Tumblr at and on Facebook at EverydayPhilippines.

“More importantly, what we hope is for the project to make a dent on people’s perception,” he says.

But before all that, EverydayPhilippines is every photographer’s chance to do his story, his own insightful journey as he fulfills his love affair with photography and his country, says veteran photographer Sonny Yabao, the only one revered by generations of photographers as the Master.

“EverydayPhilippines is a great idea. It gives the photographer the chance to fulfill the promise to photograph every day. It is a torrid love affair with photography, a romance in action,” says Yabao, commenting on the project.

Indeed, it is a chance to capture every single day in this chaotic and magical country, in the stillest, stillest moment of the everyday life.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

They Fought and They Won. Bravo to the Children of PCMC!

Van Ryan Malud, 11 years old, can’t walk or stand. It has been this way since he was born. His bones break easily and he may have hundreds of fractures in his lifetime. He has Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a rare genetic disorder characterized by weak bones.
But on February 5 at the Philippine Children’s Medical Center (PCMC), a public hospital in the Philippines, Van Ryan, sitting on a blue and yellow checkered wheel chair, with his thin, thin legs crumpled in a criss-cross and covered with chambray jeans too big for his small bones, brought the house down.
He sang Lalaban Kami (We will fight it out), the theme song of the Philippine Society for Orphan Disorders, a group that helps children with rare genetic conditions.
Minsan ang tadhana mapanghamon, tila nauubusan ng pagkakataon pero kahit anong mangyari hindi kami susuko, lalaban kami (Sometimes life is full of challenges but whatever happens, we will not give up. We will fight it out),” Malud sang to the cheers and applause of his fellow patients, doctors and guests at PCMC, the music of the pop rhythm reverberating in the hearts of everyone in the huge crowd that gathered.
It was a momentous occasion at the PCMC. This small medical institution has just won a long, tedious battle to retain the land on which it stands. The battle was not easy. The ideal location of the hospital, in an accessible business district along Quezon City, in the northeastern part of Metro Manila, has caught the attention of big businesses that want to convert the area into a mixed-use development.
However, on February 5, the battle ended after the Philippine Department of Health and the National Housing Authority (NHA), which owns the 37,211-square meter land where the hospital stands, finally agreed to allocate the land to PCMC for good.
During the signing, the Philippine Health Secretary Janette Garin said the agreement puts to rest all uncertainties that surrounded the ownership of the land and PCMC’s fate.
Malud's song fit perfectly to the struggle of the whole PCMC community as they fought to keep their only home.
Two lawmakers, Senator Teofisto Guingona III and Senator Bam Aquino, also present during the signing, were instrumental in helping the hospital secure the land title.
The public hospital has been serving 40,000 to 50,000 children patients yearly, most of whom cannot afford to pay for services in private medical institutions.
After ten years, the PCMC community prevailed. From their wheelchairs and some from the cancer wards, they fought and they fought bravely. As Malud said, lalaban tayo (we will fight it out). And they did. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Kung Hei Fat Choy! (Tips from Feng Shui Master Hanz Cua)

Tonight, we welcome the Year of the Wooden Sheep with love, hope and loads of excitement. 

As has been our tradition, Jes and I celebrate Chinese New Year’s Eve with the Filipino-Chinese community as we embrace the prospects for the new year and say goodbye to the year that was as we thank the Universe for a kick-ass and meaningful 2014. 

And so with much love, I wish everyone a happy, happy and blessed 2015!

Here’s sharing with you my interview with Feng Shui Master Hanz Cua on how to attract good luck in the Year of the Wooden Sheep. Cua has a shop at Edsa Shangri-La.

1) De-Clutter. 

Master Hanz said there is a need to de-clutter the home so positive energy or the yang can come in.

2) Out with the Old, In with the New.

Related to the first tip, Master Hanz said it would be good to replace old stuff (i.e. chipped plates, broken glasses or cups, worn-out clothes) with new wares to attract prosperity.

3) Prepare the Dining Table.

Master Hanz said it would be good to have twelve kinds of fruits on the dining table. Some suggestions are grapes (considered food of Royalty), bananas (for better family relations), lemon
(wipe off negative energy), pears (to attract money), pineapple (to attract wealth and luck) among others. He also suggested tikoy, noodles and chicken (minus the head and feet).

4) Cheers!

To drive away negative energy, it would also be good to open the windows and doors by midnight. Master Hanz said it would also be good to make lots of noise through loud music, cheers and the dragon dance, if possible.

5) And finally,

Master Hanz reminds us of some age-old tips of attracting luck: work hard, keep things clean, do good to others and live a meaningful life.

Kung Hei Fat Choy to each and everyone! Happy 2015!

(Master Hanz is available for consultation and readings in his shop in Edsa, Shangri-La in Mandaluyong. He may be reached at 09228290382)

Photos by Jes Aznar

Saturday, February 7, 2015

My Latest Story for Womens eNews

Pope Dodges Birth Control Issue in Philippines | Womens eNews

Monday, February 2, 2015
Pope Francis leaves his pro-family, anti-poverty message echoing in the Philippines, where poor families forgo artificial birth control and migrant workers feel compelled to leave their homes and travel overseas into the hands of powerful employers.

Pope sign
Various groups called on Pope Francis to stand up against corruption, injustice and poverty in a rally in Manila on Jan. 16.
Credit: Iris C. Gonzales

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MANILAPhilippines (WOMENSENEWS)-- Riza Sepniowho is 25 years old, sits on the pavement with her 6-month-old son Jericho, the youngest of five children. Beside her, 2-year-old Jasphere, the fourth child, lies on a borrowed black and red stroller, drinking milk. He accidentally drops the bottle and cries out to his mother.
Her third child, Kaylo, runs to and fro on the road in front of her, playing with his favorite toy, a big round plastic ball with silver stars. Cars and jeepneys speed by the busy street. The two older children, 5-year-old Jenny Rose and 4-year-old Russel, are "just out there" playing with friends, says Sepnio, pointing to a nearby playground.
It is Saturday afternoon at the famed Luneta Parkthe largest public park in Manila, the Philippine capital. Sepnio earns a living as a vendor, selling a variety of goods -- from coffee to sardines -- in a makeshift store in one corner of the park while taking care of her children. Her husband earns tips from watching cars in a nearby parking lot. At night, she and her husband and their brood of five children sleep on sheets of cartons spread on a small corner of the park they call home.
Sepnio knows she has a big family and concedes that it can be difficult. She earns P300 ($7) on good days while her husband sometimes brings home P200 ($4).
In the same park a week ago, Pope Francis celebrated mass, the last event of a five-day visit to the Philippines from Jan. 15 to 19.
Six million people came to the park to hear the Pope. Sepnio was among those who saw the Roman Catholic pontiff. She felt blessed. She waved, shouted and cheered with the crowd and listened as he spoke.
The Pope said many things while in the Philippines, a country of 94 million people, 80 percent of whom are Roman Catholics.
He criticized corruption, inequality and social injustice.

Pope Defends Birth Control Ban

And on the plane back to Rome, speaking to journalists, Pope Francis defended the Church's ban on artificial birth control but said Catholics should not breed like rabbits.
"Some think that -- excuse the language -- that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood," the Pope was quoted as saying when asked what he thinks about the Catholic Church's position against artificial contraception and how this contributes to population growth, which in turn has been blamed for poverty.
Sepnio heard about this on the news.
She says there are lessons to be learned from the Pope regarding this matter.
"It's hard but we can manage, but if a couple cannot manage, they should not have a big family," she says.
Jericho, the youngest, will be the last, says Sepnio, who looks much older than her age, her face lined with wrinkles and her hair filled with strands of white.
"Five is enough. We will stop at five. It would be harder if we have more children," she says.
And yet, despite these promises to herself, Sepnio and her husband leave everything to chance when it comes to birth control. They cannot afford birth control pills or condoms and are not aware of the Reproductive Health Law, the country's measure enacted in 2012 that allows government spending on artificial contraceptives.
During his visit, Pope Francis repeatedly appealed to the country's leaders, the Church and ordinary citizens to help the poor. In the Philippines, a fourth of the population lives in poverty, or less than a dollar a day.
"As many voices in your nation have pointed out, it is now, more than ever, necessary that political leaders be outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good," he said at the Presidential Palace.
"The great biblical tradition enjoins on all peoples the duty to hear the voice of the poor. It bids us break the bonds of injustice and oppression, which give rise to glory, and indeed scandalous, social inequalities," Francis also said.

Protecting the Family

As Pope Francis called on the faithful to practice responsible parenthood, he also stressed the importance of protecting the family.
"The pressures on family life today are many. Here in the Philippines, countless families are still suffering from the effects of natural disasters. The economic situation has caused families to be separated by migration and the search for employment and financial problems strain many households," he said in a gathering of Filipino families.
Every threat to the family, he added, is a threat to society itself. "The future of humanity, as Saint John Paul II often said, passes through the family. The future passes through the family. So protect your families! Protect your families. See in them your country's greatest treasure and nourish them always by prayer and the grace of the sacraments."
Determined to protect their families, mothers of Filipino migrant workers have appealed to Pope Francis for help.
As the Pope stressed the importance of protecting the family, Elizabeth Rufino, 54 years old, appealed to him to help her 37-year-old daughter, who is in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, working as a domestic helper.
Her daughter, Noela Garcia, went to Saudi Arabia in August last year to work and be able to raise her two children, but she ended up in the hands of an abusive employer who refused to pay her for her services and also didn't provide for her medical needs when she got sick with a urinary tract infection.
"What I want is for her to just be back home," says Rufino, who is part of the nongovernmental migrants group Migrante International, which has offices in places with a large Filipino population, such as Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and London.
She has appealed to the Pope through an open letter signed by Migrante to call on the government to provide jobs to people at home so they don't have to leave their families in the Philippines and endure harsh conditions abroad.

Elizabeth Rufino
Elizabeth Rufino, mother of a migrant, joined the rally, seeking the help of Pope Francis to intervene on the issues of Filipino migrant workers.
Credit: Iris C. Gonzales

Abuse, No Pay

Marina Sarno, 40 years old, also once worked as a domestic helper. She spent six years in Saudi Arabia where she also experienced no pay and being maltreated by her Arab employer. She returned home in June last year.
Sarno's employer locked her in a room and she was forced to drink water from the toilet bowl because she was not given food or drinks for several days. She was only able to leave and go back to the country with the help of Migrante.
Migrante believes that if there are enough jobs in the country, Filipinos wouldn't have to leave their families to work abroad.
"We ask Pope Francis for help. We hope he can talk to the country's leaders to stop forced migration. Forced migration is happening in the Philippines. It is a reality. It is destroying the basic foundations of society. What we really need are jobs so people don't have to go abroad," says Garry Martinez, chairperson of Migrante.
An estimated 5,000 Filipinos leave the country every day to work abroad. At present, there are some 12 to 15 million overseas Filipinos scattered across the globe.
It was raining on most days that the Pope was in the country. Despite the downpour, his words reverberated in the hearts of the Filipino people.
For the poorest of the poor, however, the hope is for everyone -- the government, Church and ordinary citizens -- heed the Pope's call to end poverty and social injustice, ills that lead to a host of other problems such as forced migration, destroyed families and neglected children.
"There are many children neglected by their own parents. Why is God allowing something like this to happen, even to innocent children? And why are there so few who are helping us?" said 12-year-old Glyzelle Palomar, a former street child rescued by a church-run foundation, in a speech to welcome the Pope when he visited a Catholic university in Manila.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Scenes from the 2015 Bankers' Night

The annual tradition lives on. My 2015 Bankers' Night with fellow reporters and Central Bank Governor Amando Tetangco.