Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Matter of Courage

A Matter of Courage
by Denis Murphy

Development of the urban poor of our big cities requires them to have the courage of warriors. It is usually the women who provide it.

In a Tondo barangay, poor women are threatened with violence simply because they want to bring legal water services into their community. The women want the legal water (Maynilad or Manila Water) because it is four to seven times cheaper than the water they buy now, which is often controlled by mafia types. Women are threatened over the water issue even in a barangay that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo visited and where she supported the people's efforts to get Maynilad by committing P7 million of the local congressman's development funds.

The threats can be alarming. In one barangay, a young woman community organizer received the following message: "Ginugulo nyo kami dito sa lugar namin baka imbes na tubig ay dugo ang umagos dito. Tigilan nyo na kami!" (Stop messing with our community or blood will be shed instead of water).

The threats are often from the kagawads and barangay hangers-on, the women say. They know these men and their families. It is a very emotional situation that easily leads to violence. In the area the president visited, 500 women are now dropping out of the water scheme she supported, because they have been threatened with violence if they continue.

Despite the threats, 40 women in the North Harbor gathered P15,000 and brought Maynilad water into the area, which will save each of them P500-P900 pesos a month. Families who buy water from these women will pay only a little more than the 40 women who invested in the mother meter. They, too, will have big savings. In these days of economic hardship, P500 or more a month is a godsend: perhaps the difference between a healthy child and a malnourished one.

In the beginning, only a few women displayed the courage needed, but courage is catching and the example of a few can create a brave community.

Just when the 40 women had the water problem licked, the Metro Manila Development Authority and the Department of Public Works and Highways came along to tell them they will be evicted, though no relocation will be provided. It took courage to struggle for water; they must now gather up the same courage to resist the eviction.

Such evictions were condemned as illegal by Chairperson Leila de Lima of the Commission on Human Rights. In a CHR Resolution of November 6, 2008 she ordered the MMDA, local governments and national government agencies to stop conducting evictions and demolitions of structures used for dwelling purposes unless the families are relocated according to law.

The Pope's Justice and Peace Commission offers what should be a starting point in our thinking on the urban poor, squatting and eviction: "Any person or family that, without any direct fault on his or her part, does not have suitable housing is the victim of an injustice" (1988). The poor are in the slums as a result of injustice. Evicting them and leaving them homeless compounds the injustice.

The women met the 100-plus-man demolition team of MMDA and waved the CHR order in front of them. The demolition chief talked to them for a short while, then the demolition began. Now the women will go to the mayor. At every step they are warned that they can be hurt or they can "wind up with nothing." Fear is deep in the people. In Navotas, people who have been evicted but are living alongside the demolition area, say every time they see a blue MMDA vehicle they hold onto their children in fear.

It is not just about water or other items. Resistance is the poor's way to assert that they are free persons who want to live in dignity and security. We are not charity cases or useless people. We are not here to be manipulated or humiliated. We work hard and we have the same hopes as all men and women, they say.

Poor men and women find courage deep in their hearts to do all they can about the ills that threaten their world. Can we say as much about the rest of society?

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