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Bagong Bayani: Finding New Heroes on the Filipino Margins

December 1, 2012

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Laurindo Garcia took the stage of the XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., like a seasoned Olympic athlete. Garcia, representing the Asian & Pacific Islander community, was in his element. He spoke with a cool, conversational tone, and yet he imbued his speech with a focused sense of urgency.

Laurindo Garcia

Laurindo Garcia (Credit: Alan Seah)

"From the onset, let me say that there are people who are absent from this stage right now," Garcia said as he opened his speech in front of thousands on the conference's main stage. "Archaic travel restrictions have prevented international advocates for sex workers and people who use drugs from sharing this stage with me now. In addition, women, transgender people and young people from my region should be standing here beside me, as well," Garcia noted to thunderous applause. Garcia speaks with urgency because he comes from the Philippines, one of nine countries in the world with a rising HIV infection rate; a country where an increasingly robust activist community is trying to turn the rising tide of HIV. The face of HIV/AIDS in the Philippines is changing: What was once a female, heterosexual disease is now a disease that highly affects men -- and especially young men who have sex with men (MSM).

Yet Garcia's words remind us that, with every story told, with every person with HIV who speaks out, there is the reality that someone else may be silenced and their story untold. Though the number of infected MSM is on the rise, it doesn't make the situation of any group -- regardless of gender, sexual identity or mode of transmission -- less dire or less worthy of attention. Though a heavily Catholic Philippines often does a disservice to its LGBT population, grass-roots resources have also shifted to help these groups.

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Meanwhile, many people are still trying to empower those who used to be considered the face of HIV in the Philippines (and are still in need of empowerment): women who were infected through heterosexual contact. But, as Garcia so powerfully noted in his speech at the XIX International AIDS Conference, there are still Filipino groups out there with fewer vocal advocates who are strongly impacted by HIV: overseas workers (particularly women), the trans population, intravenous drug users (IDUs) and young people.


The Bagong Bayani

Making up almost 10% of the Philippines population, overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) are those Filipinos who live abroad and work -- most in some form of domestic labor. Though they live abroad, they are still counted in the Philippines' total population, as well as the Philippines' HIV data. The majority of OFWs live in the U.S. -- 3.5 million -- while the Middle East houses many others, especially in Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Advocates often refer to labor as the "Philippines' greatest export." The tradition of OFWs has been in place since the 1970s, when longtime dictator President Ferdinand Marcos decided to address an economy in crisis by urging Filipino citizens to go abroad, make money and send back remittances to their family in the Philippines. He dubbed the people we now call OFWs as the bagong bayani of the nation -- the "new heroes." (Of course, due to government corruption, President Marcos and the wealthy elite allegedly pocketed much of the money circulating through the national government.)

Melanie Dulfo, MSW

Melanie Dulfo, MSW

"These different workers are still considered part of the Philippines. Because not only do they contribute to the economy; they are a cultural institution. When we're growing up, we are geared to work abroad," says Melanie Dulfo, a veteran Filipino activist who works with female domestic workers, many of whom work overseas.

However, these new national heroes are often at great risk for HIV infection once they go abroad. Though they make up only about 10% of the entire Philippines' population, OFWs make up 19% of all reported HIV-positive Filipino citizens. In 2012, only 5% of all new infections were among women, while 13% of new infections among OFWs were women. Also, all infections among OFWs were through sexual contact.

"Migration is becoming more feminized," says Dulfo. "The issues that exist for women come back to their ability to be able to protect themselves. And that's something that's hard to do. "You have women who may not be able to negotiate condom use because of gender inequality, and you have women who may not be able to negotiate condom use because they're exchanging sex for money. Access, ability to negotiate condom use, even trying to get over the shame of having to talk about sex and the need to protect themselves -- it's associated." However, Dulfo stressed that sex workers were not the only female-heavy population that found it hard to negotiate condom use and were often at the mercy of their economic and social situations.

Dulfo recalls many stories of "people arriving in boxes, of women being raped, of being trafficked, of being in domestic servitude, their papers taken. When you have people who are exported for labor, you should expect that there will be exploitation of every kind, including sexual exploitation." She adds, "So they are at real risk of contracting HIV and STIs [sexually transmitted infections]."


Living on the Margins

While OFWs face challenges with condom negotiation and disempowerment abroad, many groups of native Filipinos face homegrown forms of discrimination that keep them at risk for HIV infection. Not only do transgender people face social and sexual discrimination, the nature of gender in the Philippines poses a challenge for Filipinos. Though trans people are subject to stigma and cultural roadblocks in many cultures, it is especially strong in the Philippines, where the terms "trans" or "transgender" are foreign -- they use the terms bakla and bading -- both referring mostly to what we would call transwomen, though it is important to stress that there is no direct translation in the English binary gender system.

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