Somehow, the strength of Kerima’s presence obliterated the oppressive heat inside her dark, two-room shack and the whining baby in the hammock. Her fresh, gentle face and her alert, intelligent eyes seemed completely out of place in her squalid surroundings in a Manila slum.
At 31, Kerima has made the basic decisions that have mapped out the course of her life. Like most Filipino parents, hers scraped and saved and borrowed money to send their children to school. Kerima got as far as a bookkeeping course in college, but she dropped out of her second year to marry Domeng, who works as a driver for the manager in a cigarette company.
‘It’s hard to be married,’ says Kerima. ‘First of all, because my husband’s salary is not enough for our basic needs. After I set aside money for the rent, for bus fares, and to repay our debts at the store, I am left with a budget of nine pesos, (about US $1.20) a day for food. That’s a very tight budget, because I have to stretch it to feed eight people: my four older children, my husband and myself, plus my two sisters who live with us.
‘Domeng gives me his salary every payday, but he expects me to perform magic with it. He complains about the poor food I serve, and this usually leads to arguments about money. When I tell him that he’s not earning enough for his family, he says, "Ay, that’s none of your business. If you need money, go to the office and get an advance." But that doesn’t help, because they’ll deduct the loan from his next paycheque.’
After money problems, Kerima thinks that ‘my second biggest problem is my husband. He is so selfish and narrowminded.’
Kermima recounts how her husband has frustrated her attempts to get a job that could allow her to feed the family a little better.
‘I used to work as a medical secretary at the Capitol Hospital. That was in 1975, and I earned ten pesos (about US $1.35) a day - same as Domeng was making. While I worked, we were able to pay off all the debts. We could also afford meat. But Domeng was all the time jealous about me working. If I had to work overtime, he would get angry. Maybe he thought I had time to flirt around, but that’s impossible - I’m too old!
‘When I lost that job because my boss’s daughter took my place, Domeng was quite pleased. A few months later I tried to get another job. They had an opening at Domeng’s office for a bookkeeper, and I told him I could do that job. I had learned accounting in college. But Domeng’s pride is high. He did not want me to work in his office at a higher salary, because he would become inferior to me. He is my husband, so I let him have his way. You know he’s a man, and I did not want people to say that he had a lower position than his wife - that’s not nice.
‘Sometimes I think that Domeng is so hot-tempered because he can’t earn enough to support us decently. He sees that we live so miserably from what he earns, because his capability is limited and he can never progress. He only finished elementary school, and he cannot get a better job.’
Domeng’s inability to support his family could have made him defensive and insecure about his role as husband and father - an ambiguity which may have influenced his attitudes towards their family planning practices. According to Kerima, ‘We have five children, and we can’t afford more. Before this baby came, I was on the pill for seven years, and that was how I managed to work. But the doctor told me to stop the pill because I had a spot on my lung, and the pill would only worsen it. So I stopped, and I got pregnant, and here is my baby. When I was carrying her, I tried very hard to abort her: I had my uterus massaged, I drank some boiled herbs and ate bitter vegetables, but she was really meant for us. I was afraid to get a real abortion, because that is illegal and dangerous. I know someone who died from infection.
‘When I had this baby, I wanted to get a tubal ligation at the hospital. But Domeng did not permit it, because he said there might be side effects. I told him the doctor said there would be none, but I couldn’t convince him. And the hospital would not do a ligation on me without Domeng’s written consent.
‘We have been using condoms since she was born. I wanted to use an IUD, but I heard that is harmful if you do heavy work like I do - pumping water from the artesian well, and carrying bucketsful of water into the house - the IUD might slip out of place. So we have been using condoms, but that is not reliable - in fact I think one might have a puncture, because my menstruation is delayed for three weeks now.
‘So that is my new problem - I might be pregnant again. I told Domeng, and he said, "You must try hard to miscarry it. We cannot afford another child." I told him I would do what I can, but if it doesn’t fall off, that’ll be just too bad.’
Kerima’s plight is a commonplace one in the Philippines. It is a plight brought about by poverty and further burdened by rigid cultural and social mores that pressure a woman into conforming to the mould of obedient wife and prolific mother. In most cases, women cope with these unrelenting pressures simply by giving in and accepting their lot as God’s will, or fate.
As a result, the vast pool of feminine talent and energy that could be used to uplift individual lives and increase the country’s productivity goes down the drain. It is swept away by the Filipino male’s macho values, to which he strongly clings; by the strict teachings of the Roman Catholic Church against contraception, and Philippine civil laws that hold abortion and divorce illegal; and by centuries of cultural conditioning that have relegated women to the role of child-bearer and servant to their husbands - a role which many a Filipino woman has not started to question, much less protest.