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GABRIELA-D.C. Chapter Presents: Martial Law and the Women's Role in the Philippine Movement

Photo: Marjorie Justine Antonio
Professor Delia Aguilar presents at a community event hosted by GABRIELA-D.C. on December 5, 2022 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Marjorie Justine Antonio

Where Filipina workers go, Filipinas in coffins return. Such was the case of Flor Contemplacion, a Filipina domestic worker who was sentenced to death in Singapore on March 17, 1995. Her execution sparked international protests and revealed the exploitation of overseas Filipina workers in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Contemplacion’s story was one of several narratives featured in the documentary Modern Heroes, Modern Slaves (1999), directed by Marie Boti. The film was screened on Dec. 5 at “Martial Law and the Women’s Role in the Philippine Movement,” a community education event hosted by the GABRIELA-D.C. — a chapter of the GABRIELA National Alliance of Women, which aims to wage a struggle for the liberation of all oppressed Filipino women and the rest of the Filipino people.

Held in collaboration with students of the Southeast Asia Student Network (SEANET) at the American University in Washington, D.C., the event featured a lively and intimate program, including a primer on the conditions of women during Philippine Martial Law.

Filipina domestic workers, dancers, entertainers, and healthcare workers are among the Philippine labor force sent overseas to work and send remittances back to their families in the Philippines. The exchange is part of the Philippines’ labor export policy (LEP) enacted by President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. in 1974 as a stop-gap measure to solve labor shortages and foreign exchange problems.

Professor Delia D. Aguilar, a scholar of feminism and the global labor market, delivered a lecture at the event about the LEP. She defines Filipina overseas workers as a “warm body export” because of their gendered labor. Aguilar also connects Filipina labor overseas as part of Philippine policies to negotiate financial trouble with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

“Filipino servants of the world were paying the debt of the government,” Aguilar said.

While LEP was supposed to be temporary, the Philippines is one of the biggest sources of migrant labor in the world today, with approximately 1.83 million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in 2021, according to the Asia Pacific Memo at the University of British Columbia.

Rochielle Canare, a community member unaffiliated with GABRIELA or SEANET, connected Professor Aguilar’s lecture to their family’s practice of sending remittances back to the Philippines.

“It was just a thing we did,” they said. “But to contextualize it, we were keeping the Philippine economy afloat.”

The continuing reliance on the Philippines’ LEP has resulted in the perpetuation of family separation, isolation, labor exploitation, and sexual abuse of OFWs globally.

The event concluded with a discussion facilitated by members from GABRIELA-D.C., who encouraged participants to reflect on the material and their own ties to the LEP and forced migration. “Who benefits from the export of Filipinos overseas?” the organizers asked.

“I would love for the greater DMV Filipino community to have more opportunities for discussions and movie screenings like this. They are an easy way to educate the public,” Canare said.

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