#EYD2015: Likhaan Center for Women in Manila’s Slums

This is the third post in my #EYD2015 series – a project during which I visited five countries on three different continents in ten days, three of which I spent in the air. 

If you’d like a little more background, check out my post about how it all began and my first two posts from the trip in which I talk about empowering women in Addis Ababa and fighting climate change in Tanzania.

Today I’m here to tell you a different story. It’s a story of Filipino slums, the Likhaan center for women, rain drumming down on piles of rubbish and children laughing as they run through them. So many children.

manila happyland

Welcome to Barangay 105 HappyLand in Tondo which is Manila’s most densely populated district! This is the city’s biggest slum and it’s torn between two forces – conservative Catholic groups and women’s rights advocates.

Lito Atienza who served as Manila’s mayor between 1988 and 2007 is a devout Roman Catholic who’s made it his mission to promote pro-life policies.

For years, he put great emphasis on programmes opposing any form of contraception, sex education and abortion. For years, his little minions have been instilling fear of modern contraception methods in the people who live here.

manila slum children

That is where the Likhaan center, the site of my visit, comes in. An unassuming doorway on a busy road opens up to reveal a safe haven for local women who want to be in charge of their reproductive rights.

The local Likhaan clinic works on three levels. Firstly, it creates demand for their services by employing twelve community mobilisers and hundreds of community volunteers. Many of these people previously came to the clinic as patients and are now some of its staunchest supporters.

manila smokey mountain

Secondly, it supplies locals with contraceptives and information. This is particularly important in correcting all the misinformation spread by the conservative Catholic groups. I spoke to a young mother who confided in me that her some of her friends believe contraception causes cancer and are terrified of using it.

Finally, Likhaan focuses on advocacy of universal healthcare and reproductive health education. Changing policies on the national level is no easy feat in a country that is as religiously conservative as the Philippines, but that does not discourage the organisation’s workers.

manila slum girls

Perhaps that is because Likhaan is one of the few organisations of its kind who insist on paying their community workers a decent wage and providing an open, welcoming environment. Perhaps they are spurred forward by their adversaries who call them manipulators and prostitutes in order to discredit them.

Whatever the reason, our guides from Likhaan were nothing but positive. Their smiles immediately cheered me up despite the fact that it was my 22nd birthday (which I didn’t mention to anyone) and I was a little sad spending it so far from my friends and family!

Jo Javier who helped me navigate the slums’ narrow streets was an absolute star – if you’re reading this Jo, maraming salamat.

manila happyland slum

Following in the guides’  footsteps with my camera at the ready, I entered the slum. The sign welcoming us to Barangay 105 HappyLand seemed menacing and dystopian as we stepped over piles of dirt and peaked through broken windows.

When I asked local women about the Likhaan center they were more forthcoming than I expected. They told me how much they valued the clinic’s work and how it completely changed their lives. They felt more knowledgeable, more empowered and more in charge of their own lives.

manila slum family

It wasn’t easy watching so many young women, women who were my age or younger, trying to support their families while pregnant with their third or fourth child. But it’s no surprise – the Filipino government’s long-standing dismissal of contraception results in more than 800,000 unintended births every year.

And it doesn’t stop there. Every year 4,500 women die from pregnancy complications while almost half a million opt for illegal abortions.

manila slum boy

But things are looking up. The Likhaan center has been making lots of progress and it now sees about one hundred patients daily. Contraception use in the local community has increased from 5% to 29% over the past three years.

In 2012, President Benigno Aquino III signed the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act – a law the Catholic Church has been trying to suppress for more than a decade.

The act guarantees universal access to contraception, sex education and maternal care. This includes free contraceptives for women living in poverty, which can be life-changing to those living in Barangay 105 HappyLand.

manila happyland slum

As I walked through the slum, talking to people and laughing with the children, my sadness gradually gave way to optimism. As dystopian as the name Barangay 105 HappyLand may sound, the people who live there are unbelievably resilient and eager to learn.

The Likhaan center is working hard to help women make informed decisions about their bodies and I’m grateful I got to meet some of them.

I’m grateful they trusted me with their stories and I’m even more grateful that I’m able to share them with you now. I came away humbled and inspired – and that’s the best birthday present I could ever wish for.

What are your thoughts on the Likhaan Center and the work they’re doing? Have you ever visited the slums before?