by Mary Barby P. Badayos-Jover, PhD
Since 1999, the UN has declared November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The day also kicks off what has now become the international “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence”. This is such an important worldwide campaign for gender equality that practically all governments and international entities are invested in it, from providing funds to organizing various activities aimed at raising public awareness on the issue. Indeed, any quick online search will yield a plethora of information on the significance of this day, as well as the various institutional commitments it generated, at different societal levels. In the Philippines, this year marks the end of the 5-year theme “VAW-free community starts with Me”—a simple yet powerful messaging that emphasizes personal investment in the goal of ending violence against women. For indeed, beyond wearing campaign-related t-shirts and masks, and putting up streamers in front of our offices, what can we really do to ensure that VAW is not perpetuated? What can we personally commit as contribution to the collective aim of ending gender-based violence? Also, five years later, what has the national theme achieved?
As we ponder upon such questions, I would like to emphasize the inspiration behind the November 25 date, or why, of all days, this was chosen as the day to remind the world that VAW has to stop. November 25 marks the day when the three Mirabal sisters—Minerva, Patria and Maria Teresa—were killed in the Dominican Republic in 1960. It is widely believed that the sisters were extrajudicially executed under the orders of Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo. The sisters, particularly Minerva, broke the patriarchal mold in many ways but what I want to zero in is their activism. The sisters and their husbands were deeply involved in the movement to end Trujillo’s 30-year dictatorship. Choosing the date of their martyrdom as the day to signify the elimination of violence against women underscores that VAW is not simply confined to domestic physical abuse (as many perhaps think). Violence against women takes on many forms—from the physical, emotional, psychological, financial and yes, political. For centuries, women have faced numerous kinds of abuses but perhaps nothing more collectively significant as political subordination. Imagine not being considered “human enough” to vote and take part in matters of national interest. But time and again, women have proven that they can subvert, that they have agency. Yes, it takes a lot of sacrifice, but women today would not be enjoying whatever privileges they take for granted, had it not been for the likes of the Mirabal sisters who courageously put their lives on the line to bring about much-needed societal changes that benefit all. So, while the word “activism” gets a lot of bad press, especially if directed towards a status quo that desires to hold on to power or seeks to re-establish or expand such [abusive] powers, the bottom line is that only when we become activists can real changes happen.
I would like to say as well that there are many layers to activism. As we wear our EVAW advocacy t-shirts or masks and believe we are in the center of anti-VAW activism while those dying for revolutionary ideals are “fools”, we must also appreciate the fact that such seemingly foolish sacrifices are what consolidates action that bring about desired results. For example, less than a year after the Mirabal sisters were killed, Trujillo was assassinated, and his abusive dictatorship ended. History tells us that similar occurrences have happened throughout human existence and let’s not forget—in our own country. After all, it took a lot to get to where we are now, doing all these little things we do to achieve the rather ambitious goal of eliminating violence directed against women. It took decades for the community of nations to recognize VAW as a global concern. It also looks like it’s taking the Philippines longer than 5 years to internalize the commitment that ending VAW is personal. But as we commence with advocacy activities amid an election campaign season, let us remember that the personal is political and that the activism women do is not just political but also very personal.