Every year since 1920, in 105 countries across the world, in 94 languages, over 1 million people participate in the Women’s World Day of Prayer.
Each year, a different country is selected, along with a theme to reflect upon. This theme is relevant to our global issues faced in the modern society. The country chosen for this year is the Philippines – an archipelago of 7,107 islands in South East Asia. The theme is “Am I being unfair to you?” – a question that immediately raises the pertinent issue of inequality and social justice, and a question that I’m going to explore in the context of the Philippines, looking at three areas in particular; poverty, climate change, and the role of women.
If you look at a photo of Manila, the capital, you see the co-existence of the extremes; the richest living in apartment blocks, with shanty towns and slums housing the poorest of the city’s population, right at their doorstep. On one side of the city the wealthiest live comfortably, benefiting from the recent economic growth of the country, and building high rise after high rise.
Yet on the other side of the city, there’s Tondo slum for example, one of the most impoverished and densely populated areas of the country. Young children are often left to fend for themselves on the streets, scavenging through the rubbish and many resorting to drugs at an early age. The suffering and indifference shown towards these children is simply intolerable.
In 2015, Pope Francis visited Manila and met a young girl who was rescued from street poverty. The words of the girl caught both Pope Francis and the thousands watching off guard. This moving encounter truly encapsulates the question “Am I being unfair to you?” and causes us to reflect on the harsh reality these children face.
The little girl mentions the ANAK-TNK foundation. Set up in 1998 to serve the poorest children in Metro-Manila, the foundation has 15 shelters and runs rehabilitation programmes to lift these children out of poverty. The founder, Father Dauchez (who we heard speak in Łódź at World Youth Day last year), could not tolerate to see his neighbour suffer in such a way as he did there. He simply could not accept the tears of the children.
Moreover, he felt he had a duty “to tell these children that the world is not absurd, and to tell them of hope.” For him what was most important was not always to find the explanation of the evil suffered, but to provide the answer; the urgent response that these children needed. Armed with his three weapons of compassion, mercy and forgiveness, he set out transforming the lives of thousands of street children.
The second area I highlighted when considering the question “Am I being unfair to you?” was the inescapable issue of Climate Change. The position of the Philippines, situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire and close to the equator, contributes to the high incidence of typhoons and earthquakes – averaging 20 a year. Typhoon Haiyan, in November 2013, proved to be by far the most devastating, with winds reaching 196 miles an hour and waves nearly 8m high. Claiming thousands of lives, Haiyan was the most severe storm ever recorded to hit land.
Yet although the country is vulnerable to such destructive natural disasters, the effect of climate change is undoubtedly only making the situation worse. As the ocean’s surface temperature increases over time, more and more heat is released into the atmosphere. This additional heat in the ocean and air can lead to stronger and more frequent storms – exactly what we’ve seen in the Philippines over the last decade.
Another detrimental effect of climate change is rising sea levels; data shows that sea levels in the Philippines are rising at about twice the global average. We consider the question again – “Am I being unfair to you?” – does it seem fair that countries like the Philippines are bearing the immediate brunt of the climate change that we, in a more developed country, contribute to greatly?
Role of Women
As it is, after all, Women’s World Day of Prayer, it’s important too to consider the role of women in the Philippines. Up until the late 16th century, women in the Philippines occupied a relatively high status in their community. Equal importance was given to male and female offspring and education for both was encouraged.
That was until the Spanish arrived, and unfortunately introduced feudalism. Women were conditioned to become obedient and self-sacrificing, and were confined to church, kitchen and children. The exploitation and oppression of women was further intensified by the US rule in the late 1900s, as women were displaced from land to be cheap reserve labour, and to join the service sector as domestic helpers.
In the last 40 years, labour migration has become a major economic force; about 10.2 million Filipinos work abroad. 90% of the domestic workers are women, the majority of whom work in the Gulf countries.
Despite having two female presidents – Cory Aquino and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo – there is still progress to be made. Unfortunately, a vast number of Filipino women still remain poor, and remain vulnerable to abuse and exploitation – a situation only aggravated by the widespread poverty. Many NGOs, such as the Wonder Foundation, strive to raise awareness and help the impoverished women of the Philippines, but change is still needed on a far greater scale.
The Philippines is an incredible country, and although it’s easy to delve straight into the issues faced, it’s also important to remember the blessings of this country. The waters surrounding this archipelago reportedly have the highest level of marine biodiversity in the world and are home to unrivalled coral reefs. The Philippines also has over 100 unique species of mammal, such as the endemic Philippine tarsier and the golden-capped fruit bat.
Listed UNESCO sites include the Banaue Rice Terraces and the Subterranean National Park in Palawan. Contrasting the beautiful scenery and the challenges discussed, it could be hard to see how they co-exist, but they do, and it’s important to consider this jarring contrast.
So back to the beginning – today thousands of people will be celebrating Women’s World Day of Prayer through various events and gatherings. They’ll be reflecting together, singing together and discussing together. Most importantly they’ll be praying together for the Philippines, from all countries, from all cultures and from all denominations – all united in prayer.
So if you have a moment on this first Friday of Lent, why not say a quick prayer for the Filipino people, and rest assured in the knowledge that thousands of others across the world are doing exactly the same.