Friday, September 25, 2009

Punishing unmarried pregnant women

Published last August 19 at the op ed section of the Manila Standard Today. 

We’ve been talking about women’s issues for so long in this country one would think that significant strides have already been made in terms of putting in place the necessary legal framework that would guarantee the protection of women from discrimination. Unfortunately, we are a country that likes to talk endlessly about issues and show off about how vigilant we are of certain rights and privileges. However, when push comes to shove and we are required to manifest commitment… ah, that’s another matter altogether.

After much hemming and hawing, the Magna Carta for Women was finally passed by Congress and was enacted into law by the President recently. The law is supposed to be comprehensive—that’s why it is called a magna carta, isn’t it? It’s supposed to be the mother document— the charter—that spells out every woman’s right in this country that is guaranteed and protected by law. Such rights cover a wide spectrum—from protection from all forms of violence including those committed by the State, to participation and representation in various councils and bodies, to equal treatment under the law, to equal access to all kinds of services and opportunities.

The law is actually quite detailed in its enumeration of what exactly it seeks to protect women from. Based on the enumeration and on the explicitly-defined purposes of the law, there really shouldn’t be any room left for confusion as to the real intent of the law. It’s a rather known fact that there exists institutionalized discrimination against women. The law also took some time to craft, and unlike some populist measures such as the proposed amendments to the Labor Code, actually went through the gauntlet of committee hearings and plenary session debates.

This is why it came as a major surprise to hear of party-list representative Ulpiano Sarmiento of A Teacher Party List Group now complaining about how certain provisions of the Magna Carta for Women are unconstitutional. To begin with, where was this guy when the bill was being deliberated in Congress?

As it turns out, the honorable party-list representative was particularly incensed at the pronouncements of Senator Pia Cayetano and Gabriela party-list Rep. Liza Maza that the new law now renders illegal the punishment (either through expulsion, dismissal, or refusal to admit) of pregnant but unmarried female students and teachers by school officials.

In case you don’t know, this is the norm particularly in Catholic schools and in a number of state colleges and universities. I must stress, however, that there have been a number of Catholic schools that have already reconsidered this norm. The De La Salle schools, for example, no longer adhere to this.

But the norm continues to be observed in many other Catholic schools and in a number of state colleges and universities. Female students and teachers who get pregnant out of wedlock are deemed unqualified to continue being connected with the school or university because they are no longer of “good moral character.” I know; it’s a throwback to the middle ages and reminds you of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous literary work The Scarlet Letter. This norm is strictly implemented in teacher-training institutions such as normal colleges and universities where majority of the students are females and studying to become teachers.

Sarmiento claims such a measure violates the constitutional guarantee of academic freedom as the new law supposedly impinges on the right of schools to hire and fire teachers, as if the hiring and firing of teachers were an absolute right not governed by a number of laws and statutes. Sarmiento seems blissfully oblivious to laws, including labor laws, that govern the hiring and firing of teachers and these have never been seen before as violations of academic freedom.

Sarmiento’s diatribe, however, does not stop there. He also regurgitated that old yarn about how such a measure violates the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. His logic is startling in its simplicity; it’s surreal. In essence, he insists that the hiring and firing of teachers in Catholic schools is related to the exercise of religious freedom. Since the Catholic faith considers it immoral to have children out of wedlock, then Catholic schools have every right to dismiss unmarried female teachers who get pregnant. It seems the honorable representative is not only oblivious of labor laws and issues, he seems also confused about the difference between moral and legal issues. Moreover, he seems unaware of the human rights implications of his rather puritanical advocacy.

The funny thing is that of all the advocacy points related to the Magna Carta for Women, this particular issue is the one that everyone (at least those I have talked to and those that I have listened to) felt strongly about. Many of my colleagues in the human resource management profession had ambivalent feelings towards the other advocacy points. As can be expected, quite a number of male practitioners could not empathize with provisions that seemed to hint at reverse discrimination—i.e., inferences about women being entitled to certain guarantees purely on account of their gender. A friend of mine felt that Senator Pia Cayetano’s and Rep. Liza Maza’s repeated harping in a radio show recently on equal opportunities for women in politics, in government and in the private sector was annoying because the two did not stress that women also have to measure up to standards and should not be entitled to certain perks just because they were women.

But everyone I talked to were in complete agreement that it is about time that female teachers who get pregnant out of wedlock be given security and protection.

This whole business of Catholic schools punishing female teachers and students for getting pregnant out of wedlock is not only highly discriminatory and grossly unfair. It smacks of hypocrisy. It also sends the wrong message in terms of social responsibility. It penalizes women simply for being women; for having been assigned the social responsibility of bearing life. Catholic schools do not punish with expulsion or dismissal male teachers who get their girlfriends pregnant when they are also just as responsible for the pregnancy.

Moreover, punishing female teachers and students for getting pregnant out of wedlock smacks of condemnation and deprives them of getting a new lease in life or recovering from mistakes. And granting for the sake of argument that getting pregnant out of wedlock is a mistake, punishing unmarried females for being pregnant runs counter to the Catholic doctrine of “punishing the sin and not the sinner.”

Sarmiento’s belated misgivings are not only irritating precisely because they are indicative of ignorance and misogyny which happen to be main reasons why such a law has been deemed necessary to begin with. Sarmiento is also doing a major disservice to his very constituency— teachers, majority of which are females to begin with. It makes one wonder, is Sarmiento representing teaching as a profession or the teachers themselves in Congress?

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