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The mothers of Navotas

Navotas (34)

It was Mother’s Day. And while many scrambled to the malls not only to celebrate the special day but also to escape the blistering heat in their homes, more than a dozen mothers in Navotas spent it discussing a matter in which the welfare and future of their families are at stake. Under the shade of young acacia trees and with a gentle breeze blowing from Manila Bay, the fishy odor notwithstanding, they formed a circle on monobloc chairs on a vacant land next to the highway, sharing the space with pedicab drivers resting on hammocks, children chasing one another, and dogs roaming around.

I accompanied a friend who works as a community organizer, and in that meeting that the community organization asked her to observe and provide inputs to, the impending demolition of hundreds of houses affecting more than 1,000 families was high on the agenda. The community had received information that the Department of Public Works and Highways would soon resume the widening of R10, a major road serving the Navotas Fishport and the many factories in this part of Metro Manila. Based on the plan, 27 meters from the existing open canal will be cleared, practically wiping out the entire community.

The road-widening project had long been postponed, and the community leaders saw the bad news coming. In fact, several families in other portions of R10 have already moved to resettlement sites in Rodriguez, Rizal, and Pandi, Bulacan, despite efforts to convince the DPWH to revise the design so that the displacement of families would be minimal. The resistance waged by some organizations was in vain.

The community members meeting that afternoon were still hopeful that their houses could be spared. But unlike that time when they formed human barricades to block demolition teams and endured the pain of water cannons, they decided to take a less confrontational stance. They agreed to write the DPWH, the city government, and other concerned agencies to ask them to listen to the people.

One could judge the conversation of these mothers as more productive than the protracted congressional hearings that bring the public nowhere. The meeting was street-level democracy at work. Stories were shared (many times with raucous laughter and teasing), and differing points of view were respected. Intermittently, the noise from passing large trucks drowned out their voices but they managed to give their opinion and, most importantly, to listen to one another. The male president of the community organization was there simply to facilitate the proceedings; that has always been the case, I was told.

The members of the organization agreed to make it clear that they do not oppose the infrastructure project but that they request a postponement of the demolition for at least a year. They believed that one year would be sufficient for them to find vacant or idle land, ideally in the city, that they could purchase at a fair and affordable price, on which to build their houses and start anew.

They were firm in their position not to accept distant relocation—an option that government agencies are resolved to offer these families. But their resistance has to have basis, the mothers insisted. So they listed their reasons for disfavoring faraway relocation: lack of jobs and livelihood opportunities for working parents; inadequate basic services such as water and electricity; and inaccessibility of schools, markets and public hospitals. (These reasons have long been known, but government authorities continue to pursue their “tried-and-tested” approach of moving families far from where they have been earning a living.)

To back their claim, the mothers proposed that neighbors who were relocated but had since returned to Navotas also attend the dialogue with the DPWH and the city government. It did not take long for one mother to volunteer. With conviction, she told the group that the house she and her family had moved into was nice, but they would die of hunger for lack of livelihood.

Just across the street from where the group was meeting, a tent had been set up for the wake of a resident who died in the resettlement site. The family decided to bring the body to Navotas where it would be easier for them to give their beloved departed a decent wake and burial, solicit financial and moral support from longtime neighbors, and process his death certificate.

It is often said that mothers know best, and indeed, that one-day encounter I had with the mothers of Navotas showed what they could do to ensure that their children and families would have food on the table, clean water to drink, and a shelter to sleep in despite their daily hardships. Perhaps, for them, ensuring their children’s future is possible only if their husbands continue working as pedicab drivers or porters, if they themselves retain their work in the sardine factories or tend their sari-sari stores, and their children are able to go to school without transport expenses cutting deep into their pockets.

According to a report commissioned by Save the Children (“The Urban Disadvantage: The State of the World’s Mothers 2015”), which was released also on Mother’s Day, “slums” are the worst places in the world in which to be a mother. I wonder whether the mothers I met would easily agree with this conclusion. Of course, a lot needs to be improved in their current situation in Navotas, but mothers as they are, these women will make sure that they are able to make ends meet in areas many would label as “slums.”

Kicking families out of the city not only affects the urban workforce but also dishonors women, the mothers of Navotas included, who brought us to life.

First posted in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.