Control Over Your Reproductive Health Is Proof Of Empowerment

Ramona Diaz's documentary 'Motherland' is a wake-up call for every Filipino.
PHOTO: Facebook/Motherland Film

Inexplicable pain from pushing a body out of you, followed by a rush of love. Love at first sight. A mother cradling her newborn, the father leaning in, awestruck and caressing his fragile baby. Many of us often imagine childbirth to be so, and we’ve heard stories from the women in our lives that all boil down to a celebration and warm welcome of new life and new possibilities.

But that’s not how it is for the hundreds of women who flock to Fabella Hospital in Manila each day. The documentary Motherland (Bayang Ina Mo) by Ramona Diaz unflinchingly shows the plight of these women, who come from the slums of the capital.

Much has been written about the world’s busiest maternity ward: that at least a hundred mothers arrive each day, that a hundred babies are born each day, and just how rundown and insufficient the facilities are. But Motherland immerses us in the dizzyingly overcrowded and noisy hospital, which is kept functional by admirable medical professionals. And it captures just what the mothers feel about their nth pregnancy amid poverty, and how they cope.

The internationally acclaimed documentary mainly follows a few mothers from their admission to Fabella Hospital and their childbearing, to their nursing their newborn babies. We see one pregnant woman enter the hospital on a hot day. With its entrance door left open, the hospital is clearly not air-conditioned. The expecting mothers at the lobby fan themselves, and wipe their sweat off with a towel they then sling over their shoulders. Their skin still shines from dampness.

The delivery room is packed with women who have just given birth. For every bed, there are three women with their bloody gowns cramped on it—a far cry from the quarantine and comfort of private hospitals.

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A mother receives her baby without a smile, not even a sigh of relief. We learn that she is 26 years old and that she has given birth to her sixth child. We can then assume that birthing must somehow seem like a yearly routine for her—a task to do and later be done with.

Another mother, Lerma, who is a mom of seven, jokes about going back every year to the hospital. Every now and then she makes green jokes, showing that it’s normal for women to desire and enjoy sex. She and her peers laugh, faced with the absurdity and truth of their situation. But when she is serious, her bluntness about it hits us: “I admit I’m crazy. Why wouldn’t I be? The children come one after another.”

The absurdity lies in the fact that the mothers know what family planning is. They want to stop having babies and enjoy intercourse with their partners. They know about ligation. The younger moms have heard of IUDs (although have not necessarily seen the device before). But they’re scared. They can’t even articulate what scares them; you just see it in their eyes that they are. A 17-year-old mom eventually mutters that she doesn’t want an IUD placed in her, because her mother doesn’t really like or approve of such things. After a nurse explains how the IUD is the best recourse now for the teen mom—and that the insertion is free—to no avail, she says: “If you have sex with your partner, do you ask your mom? It’s your body, so you have to decide for yourself. It’s about what you want and what’s good for you, not what your mother wants.”

The 17-year-old mom, who has been beaten by her partner, bashfully smiles then looks at the nurse, as if to say, “It’s okay, I’ll just bear the next pregnancies.”

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The glaring powerlessness of these mothers not only over their bodies but also over their fears and the misinformation traps them in the very pattern they want to get out of. It’s not as simplistic as “They just didn’t want the contraceptive enough.” If you don’t know the facts while the stigma against contraception is prevalent, your imagination will run wild and scare you away from what you have to face, even if you and your family stand to gain from it.

Early sex education, as mandated by the RH Law, will clear up the misinformation going around and clarify the side effects of different contraceptives.

Education is essential to combat fear, as well as the failure to articulate one’s thoughts and feelings. Not only that, education will compel young women to think of their future and empower them to envision a better life for themselves instead of merely settling.

It then allows women to make informed decisions. Opportunities will come when they’ve acquired knowledge and developed skills and a stronger character, giving them the chance to financially support themselves and their present or future children.

Admittedly, majority of indigent mothers, even if they’re young, will not finish their schooling. What little money they have, which their partners got from working or borrowing, they’ll spend on their kids. But as Lerma confesses, “When you have so many children, it’s hard to give and love equally.” Which is to say that while the money will be spent on the children, not all of them will be cared for and given equal opportunities. And that’s how some people in our society are deprived of education, among other needs.

Being powerless over your reproductive health gives bearing another life and raising a family a sour taste. The birth of a child is tainted with struggle.

First: The babies of the main subjects are premature. And the risk of premature births are high when the mom has less than a six-month interval between pregnancies, has poor nutrition, some infections, or is going through stressful life events like the loss of a loved one or domestic violence. All these risk factors affect indigent mothers. And as the hospital doesn’t have enough incubators for the many premature babies, the babies are tightly wrapped to their mothers’ chests 24/7 in a process called kangaroo mother care (KMC). The heat from the ward and the baby’s body makes KMC uncomfortable soon enough.

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This kind of incubation lasts for four to six weeks, possibly more. A mother can only leave the hospital when her baby reaches normal weight. So the other challenge is that they’re away from their other very young children and can’t take care of them. Lerma, who is doing KMC, worries for her other kids at home; they are sick, but so is her newborn baby, who has pneumonia. She is torn and feels compelled to choose whose health to prioritize.

Every now and then the fathers will come and participate in the KMC—it’s heartwarming how sentimental and gentle they are in Motherland. Their presence is a welcome break for the mothers; the women are happy to see their partners and have them help. Yet the underlying implication of their partners being around during the day means a day without work, meaning a day without income. So will they have enough to pay for the hospital bill upon their release?

The full implementation of the RH Law is a fundamental step towards improving the quality of life of many people—at least we have that, even if it’s just one step.

The call to lift the restraining order on contraceptives was a long and hard battle, but it was won. Now, women and men can be equipped to plan their future.

There are those who say that the way family planning is taught and encouraged is sexist. They reason that women are made to bear the burden of protecting themselves.

But contraception or family planning isn’t just about population control or preventing unwanted pregnancies. It’s also about empowerment and dignity. Women are given the choice and the tools if not to have the life they want, at least a piece of the puzzle.

And there’s power in being able to live out the kind of life one wants. To get to work, be productive, and independent. To have sex with one’s partner and not expect another child.

Women exercise their dignity when they’re able to take control of their lives. And that’s a leap forward. For many moms, attaining a bright future has become centered on their kids, no longer on themselves. People just need that chance for something better, and they’ll work towards it.

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Motherland won a jury award at Sundance for “Commanding Vision” and has played festivals around the world such as Berlinale, Docville, Sheffield Doc Fest, The Sydney International Film Festival, Moscow Film Festival and is slated for fall festival screenings in Vienna, Warsaw and Zurich and more.

Look for Motherland in theaters in the Fall of 2016, with a digital release to follow. For more information, visit motherland-film.com.

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Stephanie blogs about art on Catchinglight.org. Follow her on Instagram.

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