By Iris C. Gonzales
Monday, February 2, 2015
Pope Francis leaves his pro-family, anti-poverty message echoing in the Philippines, where poor families forgo artificial birth control and migrant workers feel compelled to leave their homes and travel overseas into the hands of powerful employers.
MANILA, Philippines (WOMENSENEWS)-- Riza Sepnio, who is 25 years old, sits on the pavement with her 6-month-old son Jericho, the youngest of five children. Beside her, 2-year-old Jasphere, the fourth child, lies on a borrowed black and red stroller, drinking milk. He accidentally drops the bottle and cries out to his mother.
Her third child, Kaylo, runs to and fro on the road in front of her, playing with his favorite toy, a big round plastic ball with silver stars. Cars and jeepneys speed by the busy street. The two older children, 5-year-old Jenny Rose and 4-year-old Russel, are "just out there" playing with friends, says Sepnio, pointing to a nearby playground.
It is Saturday afternoon at the famed Luneta Park, the largest public park in Manila, the Philippine capital. Sepnio earns a living as a vendor, selling a variety of goods -- from coffee to sardines -- in a makeshift store in one corner of the park while taking care of her children. Her husband earns tips from watching cars in a nearby parking lot. At night, she and her husband and their brood of five children sleep on sheets of cartons spread on a small corner of the park they call home.
Sepnio knows she has a big family and concedes that it can be difficult. She earns P300 ($7) on good days while her husband sometimes brings home P200 ($4).
In the same park a week ago, Pope Francis celebrated mass, the last event of a five-day visit to the Philippines from Jan. 15 to 19.
Six million people came to the park to hear the Pope. Sepnio was among those who saw the Roman Catholic pontiff. She felt blessed. She waved, shouted and cheered with the crowd and listened as he spoke.
The Pope said many things while in the Philippines, a country of 94 million people, 80 percent of whom are Roman Catholics.
He criticized corruption, inequality and social injustice.
Pope Defends Birth Control Ban
And on the plane back to Rome, speaking to journalists, Pope Francis defended the Church's ban on artificial birth control but said Catholics should not breed like rabbits.
"Some think that -- excuse the language -- that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood," the Pope was quoted as saying when asked what he thinks about the Catholic Church's position against artificial contraception and how this contributes to population growth, which in turn has been blamed for poverty.
Sepnio heard about this on the news.
She says there are lessons to be learned from the Pope regarding this matter.
"It's hard but we can manage, but if a couple cannot manage, they should not have a big family," she says.
Jericho, the youngest, will be the last, says Sepnio, who looks much older than her age, her face lined with wrinkles and her hair filled with strands of white.
"Five is enough. We will stop at five. It would be harder if we have more children," she says.
And yet, despite these promises to herself, Sepnio and her husband leave everything to chance when it comes to birth control. They cannot afford birth control pills or condoms and are not aware of the Reproductive Health Law, the country's measure enacted in 2012 that allows government spending on artificial contraceptives.
During his visit, Pope Francis repeatedly appealed to the country's leaders, the Church and ordinary citizens to help the poor. In the Philippines, a fourth of the population lives in poverty, or less than a dollar a day.
"As many voices in your nation have pointed out, it is now, more than ever, necessary that political leaders be outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good," he said at the Presidential Palace.
"The great biblical tradition enjoins on all peoples the duty to hear the voice of the poor. It bids us break the bonds of injustice and oppression, which give rise to glory, and indeed scandalous, social inequalities," Francis also said.
Protecting the Family
As Pope Francis called on the faithful to practice responsible parenthood, he also stressed the importance of protecting the family.
"The pressures on family life today are many. Here in the Philippines, countless families are still suffering from the effects of natural disasters. The economic situation has caused families to be separated by migration and the search for employment and financial problems strain many households," he said in a gathering of Filipino families.
Every threat to the family, he added, is a threat to society itself. "The future of humanity, as Saint John Paul II often said, passes through the family. The future passes through the family. So protect your families! Protect your families. See in them your country's greatest treasure and nourish them always by prayer and the grace of the sacraments."
Determined to protect their families, mothers of Filipino migrant workers have appealed to Pope Francis for help.
As the Pope stressed the importance of protecting the family, Elizabeth Rufino, 54 years old, appealed to him to help her 37-year-old daughter, who is in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, working as a domestic helper.
Her daughter, Noela Garcia, went to Saudi Arabia in August last year to work and be able to raise her two children, but she ended up in the hands of an abusive employer who refused to pay her for her services and also didn't provide for her medical needs when she got sick with a urinary tract infection.
"What I want is for her to just be back home," says Rufino, who is part of the nongovernmental migrants group Migrante International, which has offices in places with a large Filipino population, such as Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and London.
She has appealed to the Pope through an open letter signed by Migrante to call on the government to provide jobs to people at home so they don't have to leave their families in the Philippines and endure harsh conditions abroad.
Abuse, No Pay
Marina Sarno, 40 years old, also once worked as a domestic helper. She spent six years in Saudi Arabia where she also experienced no pay and being maltreated by her Arab employer. She returned home in June last year.
Sarno's employer locked her in a room and she was forced to drink water from the toilet bowl because she was not given food or drinks for several days. She was only able to leave and go back to the country with the help of Migrante.
Migrante believes that if there are enough jobs in the country, Filipinos wouldn't have to leave their families to work abroad.
"We ask Pope Francis for help. We hope he can talk to the country's leaders to stop forced migration. Forced migration is happening in the Philippines. It is a reality. It is destroying the basic foundations of society. What we really need are jobs so people don't have to go abroad," says Garry Martinez, chairperson of Migrante.
An estimated 5,000 Filipinos leave the country every day to work abroad. At present, there are some 12 to 15 million overseas Filipinos scattered across the globe.
It was raining on most days that the Pope was in the country. Despite the downpour, his words reverberated in the hearts of the Filipino people.
For the poorest of the poor, however, the hope is for everyone -- the government, Church and ordinary citizens -- heed the Pope's call to end poverty and social injustice, ills that lead to a host of other problems such as forced migration, destroyed families and neglected children.
"There are many children neglected by their own parents. Why is God allowing something like this to happen, even to innocent children? And why are there so few who are helping us?" said 12-year-old Glyzelle Palomar, a former street child rescued by a church-run foundation, in a speech to welcome the Pope when he visited a Catholic university in Manila.
Iris Gonzales is a journalist based in Manila, the Philippines, who writes about economics, development and humanitarian stories. Some of her work may be read at http://www.irisgonzales.blogspot.com and http://www.roadtopuka.com.