Stay-at-home dads in the Philippines seek help
MABALACAT CITY, Philippines // For a long time, the only way Ermando Balwyut knew how to discipline his three children was with his belt.
“If a child doesn’t experience pain, he won’t remember,” the 42-year-old says.
This mentality is not uncommon in the Philippines, Ermando insists, but at times it led to tense relationships between him and his children, especially after his wife Michelle left to work as a domestic helper in Dubai. Michelle’s departure, in July 2013, placed Ermando in a new role: stay-at-home dad.
In the Philippines, 10 per cent of the workforce lives abroad and almost half are women in their 20s and early 30s, like Michelle who is 34.
She grudgingly left for Dubai after financial difficulties made it necessary for her to seek work abroad.
The couple’s two youngest children, Kevin, now 14, and Patricia, now 12, dealt relatively well with their mother’s departure.
But shortly after Michelle left, their eldest son, McNeil, who is now 15-years-old, began misbehaving. Each morning, he would claim that he hadn’t got enough sleep and refused to go to school.
Left to handle the situation without his wife, Ermando grew frustrated.
Seeking help, he quickly joined a new four-year programme organised by a local airport and a non-profit called MLAC that helps Filipino fathers deal with the challenges of having a wife who works abroad.
The scheme, named AMMA — an acronym that stands for “A father who excels in nurturing his child” — is located in Mabalacat City, about 90 kilometres north of Manila, where the Balwyut family lives, and trains men in all aspects of fatherhood and running a household, from how to connect and talk with children to financial literacy.
Amid mass unemployment and a growing population, Filipinos have for years left their motherland in droves. As of 2011, over four million Filipinos were working abroad as temporary labourers. That same year, roughly 14 per cent were living in the UAE, the second most popular destination for Filipinos after Saudi Arabia, according to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA). They mainly work to support their financially-strapped families, and sometimes extended families, who are struggling to make ends meet.
In the 1980s, opportunities for Filipino men to work abroad as construction workers began decreasing while the demand for women, who are prized for their warm and amenable nature, increased in the service industry and for domestic helpers.
Last year, overseas Filipino workers sent back over US$24 billion (Dh881.6bn) in cash remittances — a record high — making up over eight per cent of the Philippines’ Gross Domestic Product. This money is widely considered to be key to the Philippine economy’s survival.
But as more and more women leave to work abroad, their absence back home is hard felt.
“It creates a sort of disconnect in Filipino culture because the male now has to deal with the household and raising children, which the typical Filipino is not used to. The Filipino looks at himself as the breadwinner,” says Emigdio Tanjuatco III, president of the Clark International Airport, which helps run the Amma course as part of its gender and development programme. The airport assists with the course as a way to give back to the local community.
“Being the airport, there’s this sense of responsibility because indirectly, we’re responsible for that separation. We’re providing them the gateway to leave.”
Ermando, who heard about the scheme from leaders in his community, was one of its first 12 participants. For him, the greatest benefit of AMMA is having a community of fathers who are in a similar situation and can relate to his struggles. “When I have problems, I feel like I can go to the other people in the support group,” he says.
At one of the sessions, Ermando raised his issues with McNeil. Some of the other fathers told him to be patient and calmly explain the value of an education to his son. Ermando then told McNeil to think about children who are so poor they pick up rubbish on the street to eat or earn money.
“Surely, [those children] didn’t get an education,” Ermando says. “That’s why they’re there.”
McNeil, unaccustomed to having a heart-to-heart with his dad, appreciated the effort. “I feel lighter because now we talk about our problems,” he says.
Other dads in the AMMA programme, like Rommel Castro, were particularly interested in learning more about financial planning. After he joined the scheme, Rommel opened up a savings plan for the first time. Unbeknown to his wife, Susan, who has been working as a domestic helper in Hong Kong for the past 20 years, Rommel puts away 1,500 pesos (Dh124.6) each week.
“It’s for my wife,” he says. “If she saw me with these savings, I think she’d be very happy.”
Being financially stable is important for Rommel and his wife so that they can continue to support their six-year-old grandson, Ashton, who lives with his grandfather. The couple’s daughter, Maregine, does not earn enough money from her job at an electronics factory so Susan said that she will continue to work in Hong Kong until Ashton graduates from college. “That’s almost fifteen years,” says Rommel. “I miss her.”
Ermando also longs for the day when his wife will return.
Partly because he did not want to waste his wife’s hard earned money on tuition for a school that his son didn’t want to attend, Ermando and McNeil agreed in September 2014 that it would be best for the teenager to take a year off from education. While it’s not exactly what Ermando wanted, he’s content with the outcome. McNeil now spends his free time helping out around the house or occasionally driving the family’s tricycle taxi to earn extra household income when his father is busy cooking food.
“With AMMA I learnt how to discipline my child with respect,” Ermando says. “Now we’re closer than ever.”