"I'm a commerce graduate but I couldn't find a job after college, it was just very difficult. I got married. But then, after you take care of your family's needs, clean and cook, what else could you do? It was so boring!" exclaims Lilia Jaso of barangay (village) San Juan.
Today, however, more than a year after a health programme for women began, things have changed substantially for the 48 women members of a local organisation. The women - ranging from the mid-20s to the 60s in age - have become leaders in their own right.
San Juan, in the Bicol region of southern Luzon, has a largely agricultural community, and many of its households are located in remote areas. Although part of the village is a kilometre away from the city, its outer boundaries extend as far as four kms away.
In 2003, San Juan - with a population of 3,663 - became an expansion area of the Women's Health and Safe Motherhood Programme of the Department of Health (DOH, Regional Project, Bicol). And in mid-2004, the initial loose grouping of women coalesced into what is now the San Juan Women's Health Organisation (SJWHO).
DOH entered into an agreement with Mayor Sally A Lee. And a local NGO, Convergence, was contracted to handle the community-organising component. Avelina Aninipot is today a village councillor who heads the Committee on Education and Social Welfare, and a staunch advocate of women's rights. "We were taught management, feasibility study preparation and other organisational skills," she says.
"A participatory rapid appraisal (PRA) was done by the barangay representatives who came from various sectors and we came up with 12 major issues. These included lack of medicines, supplies and equipment for the barangay health station (BHS); disunity within the organisations; financial problems/lack of capital; lack of awareness of proper health practices; unsafe drinking water, and so on."
At the PRA, doing something about the unsafe drinking water was listed as a priority. While the Sorsogon water district supplied water - which came in a trickle - the San Juan women decided that the village-owned spring up in the mountain was a cleaner and more abundant source of water. Through SJWHO, the pipes were changed or installed where necessary, explain Jaso and Aninipot, and the water supply improved.
"The project cost was PHP (Philippine Peso) 200,000 (about US$3,570). Since we had asked for the administration of the project, we were able to save 25 per cent of the project cost. We did our own purchasing; we took in our husbands as workforce so even if their pay was low, it was okay because we knew what was going on. From the savings, monthly dues, fund-raising campaigns (Christmas carolling) and other donations, we started our own women's centre and our micro-lending project," says Nancy Lacupanto, president of SJWHO, along with her excited colleagues.
The women have more than enough reason to be both happy and excited: They spent PHP 30,000 (about US$545) on the women's centre and Mayor Lee has already promised to finish it.
The village now has a stable and successful water supply system, which will be metered soon. The women's centre - the construction of which has already been initiated - will also function as a mini-pharmacy. "We are coordinating now with the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office to provide us initial funds so we can provide cheap but effective medicines. They're 30-70 per cent cheaper than commercially available medicines," says Lacupanto.
The SJWHO women conduct regular education campaigns. A micro-finance provides financial support in cases of medical emergency. The roads to and within the village are also being improved upon because the Mayor is well aware of the needs of San Juan.
The women are aware that their involvement in SJWHO has changed them for the better in many ways. "This kind of work pays off in personality development. We were shy before and did not know how to face others. Now we know how to deal with many people, and how to do many things! Others think we get a lot of pay because we are always working for the village and the organisation but actually we just like what we are doing," most of them say.
When SJWHO began, it had less than 30 women members; their present strength is 48. And because people have seen their work, other women get inspired and want to join in.
Are their families supportive? For some, like Lacupanto, the question doesn't apply because, she says, she is a widow and all her children are married. Aninipot's, husband, on the other hand, has moved from being resentful to being supportive.
Says Lacupanto, "It's very fulfilling to know that our efforts are paying off, and we know that what we have started will bear fruit."