Going back to school at midlife was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life. It was 1994; my eldest child graduated from college and at the same time, my youngest entered college. I then had the luxury of time to pursue my own interests and graduate school was one of my options.
Could I stand the rigors of graduate school? I finished my undergraduate course twenty five years before. My husband and I who are both engineers, had a home-based engineering business dealing with uninterruptible power supply for computers so I was mainly a stay-at-home mother.
My family encouraged me to give it a try. Browsing through my daughter’s graduation program, I found a course entirely new to me – Women and Development Studies. I started making inquiries and after a few calls, I found out that this was offered at the College of Social Work and Community Development (CSWCD). I had always nurtured the dream of putting up a women’s cooperative in my home province, Palawan so I thought that I must be on the right track with this course.
The courage to go back to school
Armed with the needed admission requirements, I went to the CSWCD to enroll. To say that I was shocked to see the syllabus and readings required was putting it mildly – History and Perspectives of Gender and Development, Feminist Theories and Movements, Women and Work instead of modular courses on cooperatives and livelihood programs that I was expecting. There was no other way but to bite the bullet. My initial 9-unit load was reduced to 6 units and I was put on probation, a school policy if your undergraduate course is not in social science. Unfortunately, my undergraduate degree is BS Chemical Engineering, and I was immersed in the language and ways of engineering.
I had to work overtime, reading four to five books a week on women, feminism, gender, development studies and other related topics. It was not only my long absence from the academe that was working against me but the totally new academic world I had entered. As an engineer, my training was to be objective and precise. Formulae and processes are rigid and must be accurate. Now there I was, listening to “there are no right or wrong answers”, “your life experiences count, ” and other statements from my mentors. They talked of conceptual frameworks while all I could think of were structural frameworks and flowcharts of chemical processes.
I was confused but I learned to love the new participatory learning process and started looking at life from a feminist perspective. We talked about women’s lives centuries before and how these have remained the same centuries after. We realized that the unequal gender power relations resulting in the subordinate position of women had existed since the pre-historic times.
I saw my life mirrored by these studies. As an engineering student, I had to struggle and work harder than my male classmates to get recognized. My first job was as a chemist-assayer at the Palawan Quicksilver Mines, and I got it only because one of the owners was my father’s friend. I was the first female engineer in its sixteen years of operation. To prove my point and get the respect of my colleagues, I had to be firm and assertive. Maybe I did a good job because after a year, I was asked to recruit another female engineer to work with me in the assay laboratory. I stayed there for three years until I got married.
As a young mother, I had a very difficult time getting a job. There was simply no job opening for a licensed female engineer and a mother of three young children. Things have not changed much for women today. Discrimination still exists in the workplace and at home. My studies provided me a greater understanding of women’s struggles to have equal opportunities in life’s playing field.
Women and Development Studies (WDS): a transformative education
I found the WDS a discipline that recognizes the experiences of women and seeks to empower women not by adjusting to existing conditions that hinder their development to their full potential but through social transformation. I learned to love not only the lectures but also the nurturing and supportive environment in the College even for mature students like me. My mentors who are feminists and recognized academicians are also actively involved in communities working with the realities of grassroots women’s lives. They became the inspiration to leave my comfort zone and forge my commitment to serve women.
After three semesters, I finished my Diploma in Women and Development Studies and was tasked to speak during our graduation program which I politely declined because of fear of speaking in public. I thought it was a tradition given to the oldest graduate. The Office of Student Affairs did not listen to my pleadings because this was an honor bestowed to someone who got the highest average among the graduate school graduates. Here was another reason to love this nurturing and supportive College – it provided equal opportunity and recognition regardless of age.
My practicum class was one of the major highlights in my life. Prof. Maureen Pagaduan assigned me to work at the Women’s Crisis Center, a non-government organization that provides services to women and girls who are victim-survivors of violence against women. I had never heard of WCC before so Prof. Pagaduan had to take me there personally and introduced me to the Executive–Director, the late Raquel Edralin-Tiglao. I was assigned to help in their Research Program and interview 90 survivors of gender-based violence. I then wished they had asked me instead to do ore analysis and do a quantitative assay of a whole mountain rather than analyze qualitatively 90 women’s stories.
The stories of the women-survivors were not only heart-rending but eye-openers to the extent and inhumanity of violence against women. Who would think that one’s home that was supposed to be a refuge could be an endless battleground for women and their children? Men who are supposed to be the protectors of their wives and children are their batterers and abusers who wield power over them through force sanctioned by our social and religious practices through the years. I realized how we further victimized these women by doing nothing or asking why they do not leave their abusive situation, without thinking where they could go without compromising their safety and security. We blame them for not leaving but hold them responsible for breaking their marital vows and letting the children suffer for having a broken family. When a father sexually abuses his own daughters, aside from hitting his wife, does that family deserve to be preserved?
As a feminist researcher and crisis worker
At the end of the semester and my practicum, I was asked to stay and work with WCC which I hesitantly accepted at first. Since WCC is an NGO, I was expected to learn the other duties and pitch in where help was needed. Aside from being the research associate, I was also assigned to do other jobs as well like doing the initial intake of information for first time clients, accompaniment of clients for legal and medical consultations, rendering duty at the shelter, working with the survivors’ support group and doing feminist counseling.
The research findings from our feminist studies became important tools in our advocacy for policies that are sensitive to women’s needs especially RA 9262 or the Anti-Violence against Women and Their Children Act. I have learned that valuing women’s experiences and being sensitive to their differing needs are important guidelines in working towards their empowerment. The immeasurable consequences of violence against women and the need to end it sustained the passion in my work.
My family has been very supportive of my advocacy. There were times when my husband acted as our driver in transporting high risk clients to the shelter. My children enjoyed supporting and participating in shelter activities for children. They helped troubleshoot computer problems in the office and the shelter. My eldest daughter who is a medical doctor has done studies on domestic violence and has devised a scale in detecting women battering in emergency rooms. Some of her works on wife battering have been published in the Filipino Family Physician, the official journal of the Philippine Academy of Family Physicians.
My thirst for feminist discourse led me to continue my studies while working full time at WCC. I was able to join a group of statisticians from the National Statistical Coordination Board for a month-long study on how to do a national survey on domestic violence at the Australian National University and the Australian Statistical Board. There were also seminars and other training activities that furthered contributed to my feminist knowledge. I finished my MAWD and for the second time did the graduate school response.
As part of our advocacy, the network for the National Family Violence Prevention Program (NFVPP) was spearheaded by WCC. We conducted nationwide training activities for our partner organizations, and mostly for grassroots women in the communities. My experience as an all-around crisis worker further enhanced my capability as a feminist researcher. I had the rare chance to combine the “hard data” perspective from my engineering training and the “heart data” standpoint as a crisis worker and a mother. And I now firmly believed that there is no such thing as “statistically insignificant” when it comes to women’s lives.
I have now retired from the Women’s Crisis Center but my advocacy to end violence against women does not end with my retirement. When one has set her mind and heart on making this world a better place to live in for the female generation, one embraces this advocacy for life. Working in solidarity with women on women’s issues and concerns especially for those silenced by poverty and violence will always be a lifetime commitment for me.