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Women and children, militarism, and human rights: International Women's Working Conference

Off Our BacksOct 1997   by Kirk, Gwyn,   Matsuoka, Martha,   Okazawa-Rey, Margo

Women and Children, Militarism, and Human Rights: International Women's Working Conference

From 1-4 May 1997 forty women activists and researchers from Japan, Korea, Okinawa, the Philippines, and the United States gathered in Okinawa to talk and strategize together about the effects of U.S. military bases in each of these countries, especially on women and children. The core organizing group included Gwyn Kirk, Margo Okazawa-Rey, and Marth Matsuoka from the U.S., and Carolyn Francis and Suzuyo Takazato from Okinawa.

Country Reports

The first day of the meeting was open to the public and participants heard reports from each country.

The Philippines

Aida Santos, Director of WEDPRO, began by noting that since 1898, when the U.S. first colonized the Philippines, there have been as many as 21 U.S. bases and 100,000 U.S. military personnel stationed there. The two governments made official agreements about "rest and relaxation" (R and R), and an estimated 60,000 women and children, working in bars, night clubs, and massage parlors serviced U.S. military personnel. Militarized prostitution has had very serious effects on women's health, including HIV/AIDs, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions, drug and alcohol dependency, malnutrition, respiratory diseases, and psychological problems related to the trauma and violence of this work. The overall economic, social, and cultural impact of the bases has been to strengthen neocolonial relations. The best land is not used for local food production but to grow cash crops or for industrial development, and the best goods and services are thought to come from outside. The lure of materialism is connected to a colonial mentality with the image of the U.S. as powerful and wealthy. Seventy percent of people in the Philippines live below the poverty line.

In 1992, two major bases, Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base were closed after the Philippines Senate withdrew permission for U.S. bases in the country, under pressure from pro-democracy and anti-bases movements. Both bases are very large (Subic Bay took up some 70,000 acres) and their closure presented a major opportunity for new development. Though several plans that would benefit local people were presented, including recommendations by WEDPRO, the government preferred to attract foreign investment from Japan, Taiwan, Korea, the U.S., and Europe, using local people as cheap labor. Both bases now have new hotels, casinos, golf courses, and duty-free shops. Their very large airfields are international airports, bringing tourists and developers directly to these development areas. Military buildings have been converted for use as hotels, housing for the Philippines air force, and factories making electronic products, and hospital supplies. Federal Express now uses Subic Bay as its Asia hub. Most jobs are part-time or temporary, and low paid, sometimes below the minimum wage (of 143 pesos per day). As mayor of Olongapo City (next to Subic Bay), Richard Gordon initiated a project he calls "People Power" (appropriating the slogan of 1980s democracy movements) where people volunteer to work on the base for a year, clearing trash, planting and weeding flower beds. There is no guarantee that they will get paid employment after doing this free work, though this is implied. There has been no government help for the many women who used to work in bars and clubs near the base, or for their Amerasian children. WEDPRO, together with other Philippines feminist groups, opposed the presence of U.S. bases.

The Philippines Constitution enshrines the ideals of a peaceful, just, and humane society; a self-reliant national economy; social justice in all phases of national development; respect for the rights of people and organizations at all levels of decision-making; and the protection of people's rights to a balanced and healthful ecology. It is now nearly seven years since the United States military withdrew from the Philippines but there have been no government programs to address the needs of women and children. Women who had worked in the bars were faced with how to make a living. Some went to South Korea or Guam to service GIs, others moved to Filipino bars and clubs, and still others tried to make a go of small businesses. Many are still working in the bars around Olongapo and Angeles, servicing GIs on shore leave and tourists, mainly from Australia and Europe.

Amerasian children are a particularly stigmatized group. The average age of Amerasians in the Philippines is 12 years. Two-thirds are raised by single mothers; others by relatives and non-relatives; 6% live on their own or in institutions. 90% are born "out of wedlock." As a group Amerasians suffer great discrimination. Generally there is no regular income in their families; and they are discriminated against in employment due to stigma, a lack of training and education, the absence of credit, and other supports for poor families. Six basic needs identified by Amerasians are education, employment, housing, livelihood, skills, and U.S. citizenship so as to be able to find their fathers.

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