x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Rights group Gabriela offering a lifeline for Filipinas in need

The organisation is a counter to Migrante and enables women to speak to women about complaints.

Melca Perez is the chairwoman of the UAE branch of Gabriela, or the General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership and Action.
Melca Perez is the chairwoman of the UAE branch of Gabriela, or the General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership and Action.

DUBAI // Defending women's rights will be high on the agenda next year for a group of Filipinas who banded together to form a voice for their compatriots in the Emirates.

"So many of our women are being mistreated," said Melca Perez, the chairwoman of the local chapter of Gabriela, a women's rights group. "But they don't know where to go."

More than half of the calls to the rights group Migrante UAE, which averages five complaints a day, are from women.

Since the majority of Migrante's members are male, complaints of abuse, mistreatment, contract substitution, harassment and human trafficking involving women are forwarded to Gabriela.

"These women are hesitant to speak when their complaints are handled by men," said Ms Perez, who has lived in the UAE for 12 years. "They're more trusting and open when discussing very personal and sensitive issues with us."

On November 25, Gabriela - the General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership and Action - was officially launched in Dubai to provide counselling to Filipinas, particularly victims of sexual abuse. It has 40 members. The group has been active in the Philippines since March 1984 with branches in the US, Hong Kong, Japan and The Netherlands, among other countries.

Since its UAE launch, Gabriela has received dozens of cases by phone and through Facebook, Ms Perez said.

"As a social worker and a graduate of the University of the Philippines, being part of Gabriela is my way of reaching out and giving back to society," said Arita Costuna, 28, a secretary in Dubai who joined the group in July and now heads its welfare committee.

Gabriela will hold knowledge and skills training sessions for its members and volunteers in the first quarter of 2012.

At the moment, however, Ms Costuna is working on a manual on proper case handling and counselling of women.

"Members should be equipped with the right knowledge, skills and attitude," she said. "They should be trained how to pacify a woman and release her trauma. We can't just ask her to repeat her story over and over again."

Gabriela will conduct a series of educational discussions to teach women how to protect themselves.

An ongoing campaign is "I vow to fight VAW [violence against women]" to raise public awareness and let women realise their worth and role in society, Ms Perez said.

Gabriela also intends to visit more women in jails.

"But," Ms Perez cautioned, "we may not have the same access as the UAE Government's social workers and our consulate officials."

In April, Jhasmine Castillo-Cipriano, then the co-ordinator for Gabriela UAE, visited a woman identified as AS who was held in jail on prostitution charges for five months. AS was sentenced to six months in jail on May 29.

Mrs Castillo-Cipriano had said AS, who alleged that she was attacked by two men, was "unable to defend her rights as a rape victim".

"We are also worried about the growing number of labour violations involving women," Ms Perez said.

An overriding concern among migrant workers is contract substitution, which happens when workers are given contracts in the UAE that are inferior to or have different stipulations than that signed in the Philippines.

Since 2006, the Philippine government has required its citizens to be paid at least US$400 (Dh1,469) a month for domestic work. That minimum is often flouted.

Ms Costuna said the plight of Filipina domestic helpers should be one of Gabriela's priorities.

About 25,000 of the UAE's 600,000 Filipinos are employed as domestic staff.

"Sadly, they do not have a voice," she said. "There's no avenue for them to let others know about their situation unless they run away."

rruiz@thenational.ae