December 2006
Political Predictions

A reconfigured Filipino family

This analysis was solicited by i Report, the online magazine of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, for its current series on political predictions. The views expressed in the essays included in this series do not necessarily reflect those of the PCIJ or any of its staff members.

AS IN many other countries, family is sacred in the Philippines, invoked by bishops and business people, educators, and politicians. But we seem to up the ante on the family with all kinds of laws and official pronouncements.

The 1973 Constitution, for example, mentions that the State “shall strengthen the family as a basic social institution.” The statement sounds almost anemic when compared to the 1987 charter, which has an entire section declaring: “The State recognizes the sanctity of family life and shall protect and strengthen the family as a basic social institution. It shall equally protect the life of the mother and the life of the unborn from conception. The natural and primary right and duty of parents in the rearing of the youth for civic efficiency and the development of moral character shall receive the support of the government.”

The 1987 Constitution has many other references to the family, from recognizing marriage “as an inviolable institution” and “the foundation of the family” to the duty of the family “to care for its elderly members.”

In 1988, President Corazon Aquino used her special legislative powers (granted in the 1987 charter) to promulgate a new Family Code, which introduced many changes. These included an increase in the minimum age of marriage (previously 14 for females and 16 for males, now 18 for both sexes) to the recognition of children born of artificial insemination as legitimate, even if the sperm did not come from the husband.

That new Family Code was not to go unchallenged. In the 1990s, for example, then Senator Rene Cayetano proposed a bill to lower the age of marriage back to 14 and 16, supposedly because many young girls were getting pregnant and could not get married because they were below the age of 18. Early marriage seemed the correct solution — at least to keep the young from living in sin. The social welfare secretary at that time, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, gave her full support for the bill. Fortunately, the bill never made it.

A more recent bill did succeed in overturning one of the Family Code’s provisions. In the 1988 Family Code, illegitimate children had to carry the surname of the mother, even if the father acknowledged paternity. In our patriarchal society, that provision was not taken kindly, and eventually, then Senator Ramon Revilla filed a bill that would allow illegitimate children to carry the father’s surname, if he gave his permission. The bill passed without any opposition, amid speculation about the fatherly senator’s motivations.

THERE HAVE been many other debates around family issues, from the incarceration of juveniles, now forbidden by a law just passed in 2006, to family planning, which has faced unprecedented opposition from organized groups that, predictably, declare themselves pro-family. Attempts to introduce divorce have been shot down several times, again supposedly in defense of the family so that today, we are one of only two countries in the world — the other being Malta — that does not have divorce.

Most of these debates take place in the legal arena, particularly around legislation, which tends to make people forget that the future of the family is being shaped, with or without laws, in the economic and social spheres. Of the myriad of factors that are shaping what the Filipino family will be like in 2010 and beyond, the following have the most impact:

First and most important is the worsening income inequity in the country. The signs of boom are there with all the glowing headline statistics rolled out by government, from the growth of the gross national product (albeit at a much slower rate than our neighbors) to the “strengthening” peso (or, as some pundits would more accurately put it, the weakening U.S. dollar). No doubt, we are seeing unprecedented prosperity for some Filipinos. Yet amid new shops offering brand-name products, there are families living in the streets, and even those who have (rented) roofs over their heads are skipping meals. According to the 2003 Family Income and Expenditures Survey, 30 percent of Filipinos live in poverty; sometimes, however, it feels like there are more impoverished families out there.

Second among the factors affecting the family is the erosion of social services, including family planning. For all the rhetoric in the constitution about the State protecting the family, there has been a cutback in funds for education, health, and other social services that directly affect family welfare. The problems are not just financial in nature but extend into the sphere of policy-making around social services. For instance, when the Health Department launched a “Ligtas Buntis (Safe Pregnancy)” campaign two years ago, conservative Roman Catholics protested because it had a family planning component. The same groups strongly oppose sex education in schools, insisting on vague moralistic messages about abstinence.

The third development that is having profound impact on the Filipino family is the continuing massive diaspora. About one out of every five adult Filipinos is now living overseas, either temporarily or as a permanent migrant. That proportion is likely to increase, driven by unemployment and poverty at home.

Technically, the Filipino diaspora should also consider internal migration, involving thousands of Filipinos who flock from rural to urban areas seeking jobs. This includes the Muslim diaspora, involving thousands of migrants from Mindanao who are now to be found in most major Philippine cities, something unheard of just a decade ago.

Finally, a major development closely related to the third is the increasing feminization of labor. At home, more women are joining the labor force, both in the informal and formal sectors. From fast-food restaurants to the factories in special economic zones, the job openings tend to be more for females than males. For overseas placements, the demand is also skewed toward women, particularly as domestic helpers, nurses, caregivers, and entertainers.

All four factors are interrelated, often in ways that may not be readily apparent. For example, many of the nurses who leave to work overseas are older women, forced to leave behind families. But besides the direct loss for families, their departure also means a scarcity of trained frontline personnel in both public and private health facilities jeopardizing the health of Filipino families.

Taken collectively, these four developments have already been reshaping Filipino families over the last two decades. The years leading us into 2010 will only see an intensification of these four factors, with mixed results.

THERE CAN be no denying that the diaspora might help to ease the poverty. But there is concern, too, of how much of a difference all those remittances will make in the long term. The Asian Development Bank has already noted how the overseas workers’ money are creating cycles of dependency for those left behind, with entire clans depending on the labor of a few relatives working abroad. With the dollars coming in, there is less incentive for those left behind to find work.

There are concerns as well of how the remittances can “corrupt” people left behind, particularly adolescent children. With larger allowances than classmates who have no relatives working overseas, children of OFWs have acquired notoriety for profligate spending habits.

And while the money flows in creating a better life for the young, there is concern about one or both parents missing. Proponents of labor export will argue that we have an extended family system so there will always be people to care for the children of migrant workers. Certainly, we will see families becoming more extended in the next few years, partly because it has become too expensive, especially in urban areas, to maintain separate households. These extended households mean more people who can help as surrogate parents when someone has to leave and work in the big city, or overseas.

We’re already seeing this development reflected in kinship terms with many grandparents, uncles and aunts, even household help now called “Mama” and “Papa” because they have assumed those roles.

But beneath those changes in kinship terms are very real questions about how the members of the next generation of Filipinos are forming their identities today and how they look at the future. I’ve visited many urban poor households where the grandparents, who are acting as surrogate parents, will urge their grandchildren to study hard by pointing to a photograph of absent parents: “Mag-aral ka, para maka-abroad kayo, parang si tatay at nanay (Study, so you can go and work abroad, like your father and mother). “

We forget that we have living examples of how migratory work can disrupt family life and create serious social problems. For decades now, young rural Filipinas have been migrating in large numbers to the cities to work as domestic helpers. There, they are easily seduced by urban-bred males, as well as by rural men who have become city-smart. The family driver, the houseboy, the security guard, the construction worker — they all represent a better life so an often brief courtship leads to a pregnancy, and the male disappears. The baby is shipped back to the provinces, to be cared for by the grandparents.

The domestic helper is now wiser, but this does not necessarily mean she will take precautions about pregnancies. More babies will follow, by different men, and the lesson she picks up is that she won’t need those men anyway. She leads her own life, her kids raised by the grandparents. And when the children grow up, she goes home and brings them back to the city. The relationship of the children with the returning mother will be strained. There are new problems of errant sons — and daughters — again with early pregnancies. Guess who cares for this next generation?

We will see more of these generational cycles being repeated. Lessons are not learned; instead, we come to accept these new family arrangements as inevitable. The last time we had a national census, about 11 percent of households were headed by single mothers. I am certain the actual figure was higher, given that some of the women were in temporary arrangements with a male partner. By 2010, if we do have a national census that looks at single-parent households, we can expect even higher figures.

THE RECONFIGURATION of the Filipino family will be complicated, involving a major revamp of roles and statuses. Let’s take seafarers as an example: with about 250,000 of them deployed overseas, one can expect almost as many Filipino households managed by women. Dr. Henrietta Española is a psychiatrist working in Iloilo City, known for its large numbers of seafarers. She says she has clients who are wives of the seafarers and they tend to seek psychiatric help when their husbands are about to come home. Used to running a household alone, they fear the new demands made by the returning husband, from “running the household like it was his ship” to the rush to “gawa baby (make another child).”

Here at home, internal migration has created its own new family dynamics. Soledad Dalisay, an anthropology professor at the University of the Philippines, did her doctoral dissertation in a small town in Batangas, where many women had taken up jobs as factory workers. The result? The emergence of househusbands, not always with satisfactory results given that family structures have not adjusted to training men to assume domestic responsibilities.

The feminization of labor in general poses new challenges to our family-rearing cultures. We still tend to pamper our males, and unfortunately, as more women work, this may not be accompanied by a growth in male responsibility. The strains on women will increase, affecting family life — sometimes with new twists to the problems. For example, women working outside the home, and especially overseas, have been known to develop strong guilt feelings about having left children behind. To compensate, they may become lax with allowances, especially for sons. The consequences are predictable: a new generation of spoiled men, who may in fact end up looking for wives who can support them — by working overseas.

Already, some of the most heartbreaking stories from overseas Filipina workers revolve around the way their husbands squander the money they send home. A few years ago, one Filipina maid in Hong Kong told me, with anger in her voice: “I slave away here as a maid, and he uses the money I send home to f–k our maid.”

The possibilities of extramarital relationships increase, both for those left behind, and those who leave. Changing gender roles also mean that the cat and mouse will both play: if the male is unfaithful, then women feel they, too, are entitled to extramarital liaisons.

One of the greatest fears that Filipino seafarers have is that the wife they left behind may be having extramarital relationships. A government clerk who happens to be a seafarer’s wife told me, “My husband’s salary is more than enough for our needs, but he insists I work because he’s afraid if I don’t, then I’ll spend all my time in the malls, and will get seduced by some young man.” The husband’s fears are not unfounded; gigolos are known to roam the malls, adept at identifying lonely seafarers’ wives.

SOME WILL argue that beggars can’t be choosers, that we have no choice but to continue to encourage the exodus from rural to urban areas, from the Philippines to the world. But leaving the problem of poverty unsolved still ends up damaging the family with all its strains.

The deterioration of family planning services aggravates the problems. In the last five years, family planning usage has hovered at around 49 percent of women, about a third of them using unreliable methods such as withdrawal. The unmet need for family planning is highest among the poorest Filipinos: the 2003 National Demographic Survey found that on average, the poorest 20 percent want 3.8 children but end up with six. Compare that with the richest 20 percent, who have on average about two children, only slightly higher than a desired fertility rate of about 1.7.

Young marriages continue to be the norm for the poor, the median age of marriage for the poorest 20 percent being 19.7 years, compared to 24.6 for the richest 20 percent. By the age of 19, one out of every five Filipinas is already bearing children.

For all the declarations of large joyful Filipino families, there are larger and larger numbers of households where the male has absconded, or where one parent has had to work elsewhere, often in places thousands of miles away from home.

Then there are the exhortations to care for the young and the elderly; in fact, religious conservatives warn that family planning will result in a demographic winter, where we will have many elderly with no young to care for them. But Dr. Mercedes Concepcion, an expert demographer, refuted this in a recent conference showing that with current rates of family planning, we will not have a demographic winter until about 75 years from now.

The bigger question that looms, though, is this: even today, where the elderly constitute only about six percent of the population, we already see many of them neglected, fending for themselves. Where are their children? They’re working overseas. The Filipino family, we try to comfort ourselves, is resilient, and will survive. I have no doubt about that, but we need to ask what the costs will be, into 2010 and beyond.

Michael L. Tan is a medical anthropologist with a growing family of his own. He is currently chair of the anthropology department at U.P. Diliman, Quezon City. He also writes an op-ed column, “Pinoy Kasi,” for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.