Women’s Empowerment Month #ChooseToChallenge

It’s March 1, 2021, and this month marks 30 years years since I graduated from the Ateneo de Manila University. With International Women’s Day (IWD) coming up on March 8th, I decided to get ahead of the game this year and dedicate at series of blogs to women’s empowerment – because there is much to celebrate and still much to be challenged.

Let us first understand the theme of the 2021 IWD – #ChooseToChallenge is a call to challenge all social structures and institutions that continue to practice gender bias and inequality in an effort to make society more inclusive. If you ask me this applies to women as well as the entire LGBTQ community. Some countries are faring much better than others when it comes to inclusivity, but it is inevitable that some sectors will continue to discriminate against for their gender, overlooking their skills and talents. 

When I look back on the 30 years of my life since graduating from university, I have undergone several transformations and re-inventions, both out of necessity and desire to do so, and by transformation I mean career paths, values and attitudes. 

The first decade: 1991 – 2001 – Idealism
I plunged head first into development work – it was my first job and I couldn’t have imagined starting any other way. I carried the Jesuit idealism with me wherever I went, with the life motto of Preferential Option for the Poor. My chosen path took me into the rice fields and fishing communities of the Philippines, and later on the Tibetan communities in India and grassroot communities of Bangladesh. It was a decade of mobility, adjustment to different cultures, and life as a young wife and mother – from idealist to realist, from champion to defender, from political scientist to development worker, and the beginnings of becoming a documentary photographer. This was the decade of learning life skills beyond the confines and safety of the world that I knew where people would always be there to catch me. 

The second decade: 2001 – 2011 – Awakening
This was the decade that spelled the death of idealism and ushered in rude awakenings in my life. I came to live in Berlin for the first time and came face-to-face with the ugly realities of racism, discrimination, and irrational social biases. One man told me to my face “Oh, you are from the Philippines? I ‘ve always wanted to buy a woman from your country.” The Filipino housekeeper of friends from the Philippine Embassy was caned on the Berlin subway for no particular reason at all. The old woman flew into a racist outburst, exclaiming that the Asians were stealing her privileges and benefits, Germany belongs to the Germans she shouted. It wasn’t just a time to stand up against the racism as an Asian woman, but also as an Asian mother. The other mothers at the kindergarten questioned my methods and disciplinarian attitudes. Was I to surrender to social pressure and let my daughter run wild like the others? Or would I continue to enforce the Asian values somehow strike a balance between the worlds and cultures? I wanted to prolong her childhood for as long as possible and not have to raise mini adults within the German education system.

This was also the decade I ran into gender bias in the workplace, specifically corporate Germany. The change in career paths here was from HRD practitioner to translator, though I still managed to maintain one foot in the door of development work, albeit from the European / donor perspective. The turning point was 2006, when we were posted to Manila and then back to India in 2010. A return to Asia meant re-evaluating my role in society and the family. This was the decade Through Frog Eyes was born (2009) and the literary translator emerged. 

The third decade: 2011 – 2021 – From Broken to Empowered
Discovering my path as a writer and photographer took flight during this decade. It was during this time that I had the opportunity to go on spiritual retreats in South India to explore photography as an instrument of prayer and meditation, to break out of the box and confines of technicalities and find myself and answer the call to creativity. However, this was also the decade when everything went horribly wrong in my family life as well, and I found myself trying desperately to hold things together, be the dutiful daughter, the fearless and understanding wife, and the courageous and open-minded mother. By the time 2016 rolled around, my marriage had broken down, I was in the midst of menopause, my daughter was undergoing her own crisis, my parents died, and I was catapulted into financial ruin as a result of the debts I had inherited. All my anchors disappeared, and so too the ground beneath me. The loss of a home, a safe haven, and even an identity made me ripe for depression, massive weight gain, and toxic relationships that would further crush my self-esteem. 

It was also during the latter part of this decade, and those of you who have been following this blog for a longer period will know this, that I entered psychotherapy and began taking my life back. Once again the universe summoned me to yet another transformation and re-definition of my life: from Filipino to German, from casual blogger and hobby photographer to committed writer and professional photographer, from broken to empowered. I challenged the world and my own ignorance, and decided that it would be a cold day in hell before I give in to the negativisim and abuse ever again. 

L: Graduation / 1991 R: FrogDiva 2021©FrogDiva photography

The depression is a mere memory now, so too are childhood traumas that I swept under the carpet for decades and kept me chained to the past in the most vicious manner, and lastly, the gradual and transformative weight loss that has helped me overcome the final hurdle in my empowerment and reconcile with the woman in the mirror. I look ahead and #ChooseToChallenge whatever stands in my way to fulfilment.

I celebrate the past 30 years between these two photographs (L: Studio shot for the university yearbook, graduation year 1991, and R: taken today), the lessons learned, the holes I fell into, and all the ladders and ropes I found along the way to climb and claw my way back up. The bottom of the barrel is no place to be for too long, and as I bring this to a close I realise that distance between us keeps growing. I look forward to the day when I can finally set the damn barrel on fire.

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