One year after Quezon disaster, women are leading their families toward recovery

The latest PCIJ report takes a look at Quezon one year after the disaster that devastated the province and examines how the people who were most affected by the massive flooding there are now rebuilding their lives. While the logs have been cleared in most of the communities, and many farms rebuilt, many residents have not yet recovered fully from their loss. Many have permanently lost the jobs they had before the disaster and new sources of livelihood have yet to be found.

But we discovered something new: women are taking the lead in repairing shattered lives and devastated communities. They appear to have recovered faster from the psychological impact of the disaster and are more aggressive in pursuing livelihood opportunities. Thus, aid workers observe a quiet reengineering of gender roles in disaster-hit communities, with women emerging more dominant than the men in the rehabilitation effort.

The problem is that this new role means added burdens for women, who traditionally have the main responsibility for household chores. And with an evident lack of support from local governments regarding their needs, there are worries that not only will the women lose the momentum they have built up after the disaster, but can even become more marginalized as a result.

Jasmine Suplido and her three children. [photo by Tess B. Bacalla]

NAKAR, INFANTA and REAL, Quezon — She is the mother of 10 children, so Jasmine Suplido was used to having her hands full all the time. But since twin typhoons late last year caused muddy waters and felled trees to tumble down the nearby mountains and wreak havoc in Quezon and neighboring provinces, the hours of the day — and night — have been hardly enough for the 46-year-old.

Today Suplido is not only busy looking after her brood and doing household chores, she has also had to look for whatever work she can find so that her family — including a husband who is more often than not without work these days — can survive.

One year ago this month, typhoons Winnie and Yoyong devastated Aurora, Quezon and Nueva Ecija, leaving 1,300 people dead or missing and 432,000 displaced. Today thousands of families like the Suplidos are still coping with the after-effects of that disaster. While many have rebuilt their homes, most are still unable to work their farms, which are still in disrepair, or to return to their old jobs.

All too often, it is women like Jasmine Suplido who see their families — and communities — through the bad times. Aid and relief workers here have noted that while the men were still reeling from the psychological impact of the disaster, the women were already busy knocking on doors, looking for jobs, and working in relief programs. It has been the women who have put food on the table, even as they were still taking care of children and doing other domestic chores.

“Men take a bit longer to recover,” observed Ting Gorgonio of Oxfam, the international relief organization. Gorgonio stayed for several months in Quezon to oversee the implementation of Oxfam’s cash-for-work (CFW) program. “The (men) are fixated on what they used to do. This takes them longer to shift to an alternative livelihood.” When men asked for funding assistance, it was usually in relation to work they had been doing before disaster struck. But the women were willing to take on new challenges.

Suplido was a fish hawker for nearly 30 years, but she stopped some two years ago, shortly before giving birth to her youngest child. Severe pains from a possible kidney infection made walking long distances to sell fish more difficult, forcing her to take on a variety of less exacting jobs. Her husband looked after their neighbors’ coconut trees, which were farmed for copra. But when the calamity struck and the family was left homeless and without any means of livelihood (the coprahan was among those destroyed by the log-choked floods), it was Suplido who took matters in her own hands and made sure the children were fed and clothed.

Since the disaster, many women in Quezon like Suplido have had to bear the brunt of heavier workloads even as their own health and other needs are overlooked. At the same time, there are signs that the experience of working outside the home has been empowering for many women and may even be causing a shift in gender roles. But local governments seem to have been slow to pick up on this trend and offer few livelihood opportunities for females as part of rehabilitation efforts in disaster-struck areas.

Gender issues consultant Jeanne Illo thus worries that unless the women themselves are able to muster energy to plod on or their communities and women’s groups in particular offer support, the women may lose any momentum they had gained in the course of helping rebuild their communities and become even more socially marginalized than they were before the disaster.

Lilian Mercado Carreon, Philippine program representative of Oxfam, said disasters offer an opportunity for women to shine in view of their socially constructed roles and the necessity that drives it. In fact, immediately after the floods dissipated, the women were either out looking for some chore they could do for a fee, such as clearing other homes of mud, or were queuing for relief goods for hours on end. The men were doing these, too, but there were more women patiently lining up at the relief centers, said observers here.

In addition, some women who eventually found work outside of the home said they finally learned to delegate some of their domestic responsibilities to their idle husbands and children.

The new set-up allowed the women to go out and do something else other than housework, said Gorgonio. It also enabled them to buy things from their own earnings instead of being, as economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen put it, “just passive recipients of welfare-enhancing help.” Sen has said that the “economic participation of women is both a reward on its own (with associated reduction of gender bias in the treatment of women in family decisions) and a major influence for social change in general.”

Even David Prudente Sr., barangay captain of Batangan, Nakar, couldn’t feel prouder of what the women in his community had achieved in the course of taking part in the communal activities organized by Oxfam. He said this was the first time he has seen this happen — women collectively participating in activities not traditionally associated with them. “Walang inurungan (They never backed down),” Prudente said with palpable admiration. In one community evaluation of Oxfam’s CFW program, which ended last July, the men themselves acknowledged that the womenfolk had been “a big help.”

Much of the mud- and debris-clearing here in Quezon, for instance, had been done by women who participated in the CFW program, which ran for months after the disaster. The program’s target participants had actually been the male household heads. But wives were soon allowed to take the place of their husbands who had to work elsewhere — or for one reason or another refused to work, which has been the complaint of some women.

It became apparent to Oxfam that although women are more used to domestic chores, those in Quezon were ready to explore other types of work, including digging creeks, clearing roads and hauling stones. Oxfam, however, acknowledged the limited physical capacity of the women to perform such tasks, and made the necessary adjustments while making sure they were properly compensated for their work.

Oxfam now reports that in some instances, the women even thought of alternative livelihoods rather than waiting for opportunities to come along. For example, some mothers in one barangay came up with communal planting, in which they organized themselves to rent and work a piece of land so they could later sell the produce at the market. Some of them even approached Oxfam and submitted a one-page request for additional tools or fertilizers — a gesture the relief agency had not expected them to do.

Notably, many of the women were doing double shifts, working for money all day and then accomplishing more chores once they got home. Although some women were lucky enough to get help from their husbands or children, most women had to take on an extra burden. One of Suplido’s neighbors, for example, said that she still does not get to sleep until 10 p.m., because she has to do housework after putting in a full day as a live-out help for another family. She also makes sure she wakes up early — at four a.m. — so she could clean the house and prepare her brood’s food before leaving for work.

Yet no matter how tired the women have been, many of them have been extremely pleased over being able to earn and help support the family. A Philippine National Red Cross program officer said women are excited to take on new roles, because doing so empowers them and takes them out of their homes. And so when the Red Cross needed volunteers to repack relief goods for distribution, it was the women who readily stepped forward. When the organization initiated disaster-management training in some barangays here in Quezon, among the most eager volunteers were women, one of whom was more than 60 years old but who was determined to complete the five-day course — and did. Oxfam has also reported that women far outnumbered the men during community meetings in which livelihood concerns were discussed.

Mas malalakas ang loob ng mga babae (Women are braver),” explained Marita Tena, adding that her own husband was rather faint of heart and feared for the future following the tragedy that befell people here. Tena herself was decidedly more optimistic, chirping in Tagalog, “While there’s life, there’s hope.”

Nila Junio’s husband was similarly paralyzed by the psychological impact of the disaster. He fell ill soon after the typhoon struck and log-heavy floods destroyed their 1.5-hectare ricefield and piggery. He became depressed, said his wife, and is still in a state of shock. Junio, a 52-year-old mother of three, thus began driving a tricycle, although she admitted it has been hard feeding her family and keeping the children in school with just the P150 she earns each day. Experts warned it would take years before the damaged rice fields, like those of the Junios, could be suitable again for rice cultivation.

Arlene Mallari’s husband left the family home after the couple had a misunderstanding. Mallari, who had to tend to their two small children, decided to take his place at the Oxfam cash-for-work program while he was away. She had to leave the children with neighbors or take a makeshift hammock to work, but as she commented, “Ang babae, madaling nanghihinayang (Women are less likely to pass up income opportunities).” Her husband resurfaced only after several days had passed.

But since Oxfam’s cash-for-work program ended months ago, women here have had great difficulty finding sources of income. Tena, who was one of the CFW participants in Barangay Batangan in Nakar, also used to do laundry for four families, netting her P2,500 monthly. That income is all but gone, since her clients have themselves become hard-up since the 2004 floods. Tena, who is also a barangay health worker receiving P50 as monthly allowance, said she has not stopped exploring other sources of income even if it means asking strangers if they need a laundrywoman. She is hoping to take out a loan so she could set up a store; no loan assistance, however, has been extended to her community.

Meanwhile, Suplido, who was also a CFW participant, now helps her husband produce charcoal. Given a choice, she said, she would not do it, knowing the risks it poses to one’s health due to constant exposure to heat (or sheer exposure to carbon monoxide, to be more precise). The danger, of course, is not only to her health but also to the land she, her family and her community especially need these days to survive. Once burned, it could cease from hosting any life.

Yet what she and her husband earn from charcoal making, around P500 for a week’s worth of labor, cannot even cover the P800 she needs to undergo an ultrasound test, which would either confirm or refute her doctor’s suspicions that she has kidney stones.

Suplido is constantly in pain, but her health anxieties come a poor second to her concerns for her family. They still eat three meals a day, but they are now dining only on rice mixed with sugar or bagoong (a condiment made from shrimp or small fish) or boiled vegetables. Worse, her toddler has had to go without milk. And that is with two of her children, whose ages range from close to two years old to 27, already married and living elsewhere. Three of Suplido’s sons have had to stop schooling.

Random interviews conducted by the PCIJ with several women in Quezon revealed that they would have liked more skills training to give them more opportunities to earn. Based on their performance in the Oxfam cash-for-work program, though, the resourcefulness of Quezon’s women could well see them through even in the absence of such training. Gorgonio said the women simply learned on the job, and produced sterling results, even if they had to do backbreaking work like building irrigation canals.

“We had no time to provide them training, yet they managed,” she said. “When we asked some technical consultants to check their work, they were surprised to find the quality of the women’s work (as good). They were happy with what they saw.”

Still, it would help if local governments were more appreciative of what women here have achieved following the 2004 calamity. But as late as a few weeks ago, the rehabilitation plans of Real, Infanta and Nakar towns, which had been most affected by the floods, still had no specific components for women. One relief agency officer commented that the plans were focused mostly on infrastructure, while the few livelihood programs were still targeting men.

The issue, said Oxfam’s Carreon, is providing livelihood options for both men and women. Suplido herself said that women also need to earn. Yet a local disaster coordination council member told the PCIJ that since there were programs targeting families, then the women would benefit as well.

Unfortunately, unlike in Aceh, Indonesia or in Sri Lanka, which were hit by tsunamis in December last year, there is hardly any local women’s group in Quezon that could have recommended appropriate programs for them. In Aceh, the Women-Headed Household Empowerment Program or Pekka merely picked up where the tsunami had rudely interrupted its projects, which included gender awareness and skills training.

Gender expert Illo said that in the absence of support for the women here, the greater pressures on them could only contribute to the possibility that they would end up even more socially marginalized. But since she said “it takes longer to kill an adult,” indicators of such marginalization will be seen more easily in children, such as increased infant and child mortality. After all, a mother’s health is critical to newborns, said the United Nations Children’s Fund, citing research that suggests a sound neonatal environment — the mother’s womb — is an important predictor of future child health.

Malnutrition among children is another indicator of the women’s marginalization, although Illo said women themselves are bound to suffer that, too. Such maternal malnutrition in turn can result in shorter lactating periods. There can also be a rise in maternal mortality (the annual number of deaths of women from pregnancy-related causes). Worldwide, at least half a million women die each year from maternal causes arising from lack of supplies and poor access. Here in Quezon, the lack of reproductive-health services has become more pronounced in the wake of a sudden rise of unwanted pregnancies following the 2004 calamity — and increased demands for contraceptives.

Illo said one of the ways the government can avoid such a dire scenario is to develop a prototype disaster management plan that is as inclusive of women’s needs as possible. Women will have to be included in drafting this document, she said, although she stressed that they will have to undergo some training first to ensure their “meaningful participation.” Otherwise, she said, “they will only be asking for sewing machines.”

Illo, though, said women are resilient and persevering. “They fight back,” she said, and “conjure (income opportunities) from thin air.” Carreon, for her part, is banking on the determination shown by the women participants in her group’s cash-for-work program. “I’d like to believe,” she said, “that a certain pattern has been set in motion.”