Malu S. Marin was one of the participants of the Inter-Regional Dialogue on Sexuality and Geopolitics, organized by Sexuality Policy Watch (SPW) in late September 2011, to discuss some of the outcomes of the Regional Dialogues which were held in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Since 2000, she has been Executive Director of ACHIEVE – Action for Health Initiatives, an organization which works on issues addressing gender, sexuality, reproductive health, migration, as well as human rights and HIV and AIDS in the Philippines.
SPW team interviewed her to know more on the work that she has been doing on HIV, health and migration issues for more than 11 years. Ms. Marin is also involved in the LGBT movement in the Philippines, mainly promoting representation of LGBTs in the political arena through her involvement in Ladlad Partylist, a political party for LGBTs founded in 2003.
:: Sexual and Reproductive rights in the Philippines
SPW: Please, present a brief landscape on the current situation of sexual and reproductive rights in the Philippines. What are your perspectives and main struggles for the sexual and reproductive rights in your country?
Malu: We have a long history of work on sexual and reproductive health and rights in the Philippines which was started by the women’s movement way back in the 80’s and it is continuing till today. At the moment, our predominant focus and challenge is the passage of the reproductive health bill, as it is facing a lot of opposition from the Catholic Church and other conservative politicians. So, on one side, there is work to enact a law to enable women and men to access services and information responding to their sexual and reproductive health needs. On another, there is the task of closely examining and addressing issues related to gender and sexuality. In the Philippines, there is considerable work to push for recognition and inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity issues in normative guidelines, standards and frameworks. Even though we have an active LGBT rights movement, we still don’t have a law that protects LGBTs from discrimination. These are some issues we are still working on. In the area of HIV and AIDS, the Philippines has been experiencing a rapid increase in HIV cases over the last three years. From 2-3 cases a day in 2009, the number of HIV cases has risen to 6-7 a day in 2011. We need to address the challenge of achieving behavior change, particularly, because majority of the new cases are occurring among men who have sex with men. So, the thrust is about confronting issues related to their sexual practices and behaviors, but at the same time trying to promote positive sexuality. In the Philippines, the main strategy of the government for HIV prevention is limited to A and B (abstinence and being faithful), while C (consistent and correct condom use) is discouraged because it will ‘promote promiscuity’, pre-marital/extra-marital sex and the like. Sexuality is often demonized especially by the religious sector, and so we really need to promote it in a more positive way.
In terms of the reproductive health bill, a critical aspect of that is really about ensuring access to services and information on sexual and reproductive health for women and men, especially young people. It is facing a lot of challenges, because the bill also has budget implications, i.e., for women and men to make safe reproductive health choices, services should be made accessible and available by the state. Religious forces are opposed to that, saying they don’t want their taxpayers’ money being used to pay for people to have ‘wanton sex’. They have also stepped up in their misinformation efforts and dubbed it as a ‘death’ bill, saying it legalizes abortion. In fact, the bill doesn’t even contain anything on abortion, except the management of post-abortion complications. But even that is being attacked by the church. The bill also seeks to provide sexuality education, especially to young people, because they are the ones who need it the most. And it is also again, a very contentious issue, because people are saying if you teach children or young people about sex, they will go out and have sex. We are trying to really advance the idea that it is really about enabling people to make choices about their lives, their bodies, their sexuality. Just because you give someone information it doesn’t mean that person will have sex right away.
:: Migrant populations in the Philippines
SPW: Considering your work with migrant populations, how have their sexual and reproductive rights been denied and controlled by the State?
Malu: In many countries, migrants, particularly contract workers, are subjected to rules and regulations that directly impact on their sexual and reproductive health and rights. Migrant workers are subjected to a single-entry policy, meaning, their opportunity to reconnect with families and partners is severely hindered because they can only enter their country of employment once and cannot re-enter if they leave, unless they have renewed their work visa. In many countries such as Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia and all of the Gulf States, they are subjected to regular mandatory HIV and pregnancy testing (for women) and get deported once they test positive. In many Arab States, unmarried women who get pregnant are accused of adultery, given jail sentences and could get punished further by whipping. Access to sexual and reproductive health services are also limited or, if available, are difficult to access and not affordable. In the case of sexual relationships, Singapore even prohibits women domestic workers to marry Singaporean men, unless there is permission from the authorities. Transgender women have gotten barred from entering into a foreign country, such as in Hong Kong, because of the perception that their main intention to enter into the country is to do sex work. While migrants are expected to adjust and in fact, conform to cultural norms and mores of their destination countries, straddling a transnational existence, where they have to ‘live’ their own cultural norms and mores, can be problematic. Thus, many of them end up in jail for violating rules and regulations, which otherwise they would consider normal in their home countries, e.g. being seen in the company of the opposite sex, such as the case of Saudi Arabia. Or cross-dressing, such as in the case of male migrants getting arrested in Dubai for ‘wearing women’s clothes’.
:: LadLad Partylist
SPW: You are part of LadLad Partylist, a Filipino LGBT party. Why did you choose this name?
Malu: Ladlad means to unfurl or to come out. This name was formally decided on in 2006, as an expression of the LGBT community’s readiness to challenge the political landscape and demand recognition and representation.
SPW: How was LadLad formed and how were the reactions about this process?
Malu: We first started really thinking about forming this party in 2003. In fact, when it was first formed, it had another name, Lunduyan, which loosely translated means, sanctuary. The core group later on decided on the name, Ang Ladlad. In the elections that were going to be held in 2007, we applied for accreditation. In the Philippines, we have a law where groups or sectors that are marginalized or under-represented can have representation in Congress. But they have to organize themselves into a political party. So, currently, there is representation of the youth, the elderly, women, farmers, trade unions, etc.,. They have all formed political parties and have run for Congress. So, we said: LGBT are marginalized, we are not represented, and we want to form a party. In order for this to be formalized, we had to be accredited by the Commission on Elections (COMELEC). But in 2007, we were denied accreditation, because COMELEC said: you don’t have a national constituency. This was fine and we said: Ok, technically, they are right, we didn’t work hard enough to achieve a national membership that was representative of all 17 regions. So, what we did was to prepare for the 2010 elections, and we said: we are going to be really organized this time. We achieved almost a nationwide membership, and we were able to form regional and provincial chapters. So, in terms of that technical requirement they couldn’t fault us anymore. But again, we were denied the accreditation by the COMELEC for reasons of ‘immorality’ and being a ‘threat to the youth’.
In the decision they released, they generously quoted verses from the bible and the Koran to support their ruling. So, we filed a petition to the Supreme Court, questioning that decision. Elections were supposed to be held in May 2010, and we filed the petition at the Supreme Court in December of 2009. In January, the Supreme Court instructed the COMELEC to retain Ang Ladlad in the official ballot, pending the ruling on the party’s petition for accreditation. The elections were to be held in May, but the Supreme Court only decided in April 2010 to overturn the COMELEC decision and approve our accreditation. This landmark decision finally validated our claim that LGBTs are marginalized and are under-represented in Congress, thereby entitling us political participation. However, because we had only three weeks to officially campaign, we weren’t able to get enough votes to be able to get a seat in Congress. But, we still managed to snag close to 115,000 votes, just short of about 40,000 votes to get a seat in Congress. So, what we are doing now is solidifying our ranks, because the next elections will be in 2013, and we want to be ready this time. Before I came here, September 24 was our 8th anniversary, and we had a big fundraising dinner.
SPW: What are the priorities of the party?
Malu: Currently, the party has five main platforms and this can change in the next convention in February 2012. These are: 1) Re-filing of the Anti-Discrimination Bill that gives LGBT Filipinos equal opportunities in employment and equal treatment in institutions, establishments and facilities. It is also a bill that penalizes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity; 2) Re-filing of the bill to repeal the Anti-Vagrancy Law that some unscrupulous policemen use to extort bribes from gay men without ID cards; 3) Setting up of micro-finance and livelihood projects for poor and handicapped LGBT Filipinos; and 4) Setting up of centers for old and abandoned LGBTs, as well as young ones driven out of their homes. The centers will also offer legal aid and counseling, as well as information about LGBT issues, HIV-AIDS, and reproductive health. These centers will be set up initially in the key cities/metropolitan areas of the Philippines — Baguio, National Capital Region, Cebu and Davao.
SPW: Do you plan to have a candidate run for the national or local elections? What are you planning and expectations for the next elections?
Malu: The elections for Parylist representation are done during the national elections. Like the Senate, they are elected nationally, although their seat is in Congress or the House of Representatives. In contrast, district representatives of Congress are only elected locally. The party will elect five nominees, because it is actually the party that will be voted and not the individual persons representing the party. The challenge is that you are competing with parties/representatives of other marginalized sectors. The concept of the party list system is that if you get 2% of the total votes cast for the partylist representation, you get a seat. The more votes you have, the more seats you can occupy, up to a maximum of three seats. If one of your nominees is unable to occupy the seat for some reason, e.g. he or she gets disqualified or resigns, then the fourth nominee steps into his/her place. This is why we need to elect five nominees during our National Convention. It is important that the persons we elect to represent the party will be the best and and most able to represent LGBT issues in Congress.
Actually, what we are doing more now is organizing the chapters, because the actual campaign will happen later, about 90 days prior to the elections in May 2013. We cannot really campaign now, but we are trying to organize chapters in the different provinces around the country. We will definitely win, I think. We have a lot of support from people, from private individuals, even politicians and political parties are approaching us as early as now.
SPW: Are you specifically a possible candidate?
Malu: No, I will decline if nominated. Politics is not my calling. I leave that to people who have the stomach and the stamina to engage in partisan politics or in the tedious task of legislative reform. I’d rather be engaged in transforming society through development work and activism. Or cook wonderful dinners for friends.
>> Read also When We Were 20….Years Ago: Remembering the First Time Filipino Lesbians Marched in an International Women’s Day Rally, by Malu S. Marin