This post is the third part of a series honoring International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, in which we recognize the critical work being done to defend the rights of women, transgender, and gender non-conforming individuals in digital spaces. These organizations are each working to overcome the long history of gender inequality, gender-based violence, and forms of discrimination that threaten the full enjoyment of human rights for all. The first post of this series features Acoso.online, and the second features Internet Democracy Project.
In the Philippines, the fight for equality and human rights is never easy, especially for feminist groups and the LGBTQI community. At the Internet Freedom Festival in March, we sat down with Naomi Fontanos, the executive director of Gender and Development Advocates Filipinas (GANDA Filipinas), to talk about the work the organization is doing to protect and promote human rights in the face of hostility toward marginalized communities, restrictions on media freedom, and tightened control of free expression online.
The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Access Now (AN): What specific challenges are you facing in your work, especially for the communities that you’re trying to protect?
Naomi Fontanos (NF): We always say the Philippines is a patriarchal society, so it’s very male-dominated and there’s a lot of machismo, misogyny, and sexism in the daily lives of women and LGBTQI people. I think the situation has been exacerbated with our sitting president who is very well known for his misogyny, and his, um, sexist — well, his sexism.
He has made comments about raping women and shooting them, particularly those involved in the insurgency, you know, rebel women. He told an audience of people who surrendered from the insurgency that, “Well, we should just shoot them in the vagina, then they become useless.”
This is the context that we live in now.
It’s very unfortunate that the movement worked in the past 18 years to get an anti-discrimination bill passed in Congress, and it was finally passed during the first year of President Duterte. He’s actually benefiting from almost 20 years of legislative advocacy work…
We always remind the community that we should not be co-opted by this administration and that we should always be critical of its policies even if they seem on the surface friendly to the community. Because we believe that in the end, the president, if he ever is really committed to the rights of LGBTQI people, should also be committed to the human rights of all…
Whatever support the president shows for the LGBTQI community or for women, is just mere tokenism for us. We believe that, if really his administration will bring change, it shouldn’t be only at the policy level, it should also be in terms of him leading by example and behaving himself and watching his language, so that he sets an example to people showing that he really is for change in the culture.
You can’t simultaneously direct the Department of Health to implement the responsible parenthood and reproductive health law — a product of almost 20 years of advocacy work of the women’s rights movement in the Philippines — and say, “I should have raped this Australian missionary first.”
AN: How does your organization provide help to protect the community or work to advance the rights for the community?
NF: We’ve been trying to raise people’s awareness about their rights because we are living in dangerous times. In the beginning of the war on drugs, we were trying to disseminate information on what people’s rights are when police came to their home and knocked on their doors to conduct spontaneous investigations. And at the same time we’ve also been raising awareness in terms of how to prevent violence towards trans people. Because we very well know that the most vulnerable in society become even more vulnerable when there is a policy to eradicate drugs in the Philippines.
AN: So how do you see the role of internet in this movement and in your advocacy work?
NF: Well, in the Philippines, Facebook is a very effective medium to do our advocacy work. Facebook has a high penetration rate in the Philippines with a population of around 106 million. Filipinos are using Facebook every day and spending a lot of time there. In our context, Facebook is a tool that we need to use as an extension of our advocacy work. Otherwise, you lose. I know that a lot of people are wary of Facebook as an internet giant that just collects people’s data. But in the Philippines we have to work with this tool and master it. We need to have a sense of ownership over it so that you dictate what it does for you, not the other way around.
We use it in terms of raising awareness in the community about their rights, regularly updating them on what’s happening in terms of the laws that are being worked on to benefit the community. The internet is a friend of the community.
AN: Since we are here at the Internet Freedom Festival, how do you see this community, the global internet freedom community — the digital rights community — helping you with your work? And how do you see your organization fitting in to the global battle for internet freedom?
NF: Like any other social justice movement I think the internet freedom movement is also evolving. In the beginning we actually stumbled into being involved in this movement because there was a cybercrime law passed in the Philippines. Of course the movement was led by men since men were mostly in leadership positions. But the women’s movement in the Philippines is also very assertive. When we were trying to block the cybercrime law, a lot of women’s rights activists were involved in the efforts to oppose the cybercrime law.
I’ve seen the internet freedom movement improve in the last five years. It has become more inclusive towards women’s rights advocates and LGBTQI rights advocates. But I think you can do so much more. If you don’t push the envelope then nothing happens.
AN: Last but not least, in celebrating International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, what do you want to say to your fellow freedom fighters around the world?
NF: I always look forward to March 8th, and also March in general, as Women’s History Month, an international month for women. The day and the month itself represent a space for resistance, especially for me. It represents something radical, yet it’s a time for love. It’s a time for you to express love for things that deeply matter to you, like freedom, human rights, the revolution, so to speak. It’s also a time to express solidarity, for your comrades in the movement, for other women who are fighting for equality. Other people who are pushing for change and progress for women, LGBTQI people, etc.
Last night we went to the Women’s March here in Valencia and it was really great to just be there and to feel the energy of this big crowd. It assures you that you’re not alone in this fight, even if you have a long way to go. You have many people to fight this good fight with.