Likhaan and the struggle for reproductive rights in the Philippines

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Publication Date: 
Mon, 2012-11-26


By Rita Morbia

Dr. Junice Melgar

Dr. Junice Melgar (photo: Likhaan)

Like many women’s health advocates in the Philippines, Dr. Junice Melgar (photo), the Director and cofounder of Likhaan, traces her days as an activist to living under the cloud of the Marcos dictatorship. She remembers barbed wire around her high school and the military rummaging through students’ personal effects. Later as a medical student, she joined the national liberation struggle. It was a difficult time—one of secrecy, fear and violence.

Junice was involved in providing free medical services to rural communities, particularly women. Listening to them she realized the depth of entrenched patriarchal attitudes and the suffering they caused countless women. It awakened the feminist in her.

Junice was also inspired by the agency of women in the communities where she worked. The women did their own political analyses and proposed solutions. “My job,” says Junice, “was to ensure that these women could speak and act on their own behalf.”

In the post-Marcos period, Junice and other health activists, including Dr. Sylvia Estrada-Claudio—the current Chair of Likhaan’s board of directors—formed Likhaan, one of the Philippine’s leading women’s health organizations. Likhaan works in three basic areas: delivery of primary healthcare through clinics for women by trained community health workers, support for grassroots organizing with women and youth groups, and research-based advocacy on national issues.

Sylvia recalls Likhann’s early approach: “Like any group of community organizers, we started by listening to the women about their problems and what they thought were the causes. We listened also to their dreams and how they thought they might achieve them. Then, we began to exchange our own views and opinions with them. In short, we took them seriously. For many of the women, it was the first time that anyone took them as serious political actors. It was an important first step.”

Likhaan’s philosophy and approach remains essentially the same today. It is infused with a women’s rights agenda locally and nationally, an emphasis on empowerment, and the creation of space for dialogue, learning, and transformation.

Likhann community - Manila

The community of Likhann, Manila (photo: Rita Morbia)

Likhaan Clinics

Likhaan has clinics in six large urban poor communities of metro Manila and two community organizing programs in the central Philippines. The clinic staff members are women, often already trusted leaders, from the communities themselves who have undergone training to become community health workers. They deliver comprehensive primary healthcare with an emphasis on reproductive and sexual health. These clinics see over 30,000 patients annually. They serve women seeking pre- and post-natal obstetric care, information and access to contraception, care for post-abortion related complications (abortion is illegal in the Philippines), respite and solutions for domestic violence, and youth interested in learning about sexual health. The clinics are often hubs in the community for information and organizing.

A number of principles  underpin the way Likhaan delivers clinical care. First, Likhaan support the belief that poverty does not justify substandard care and consequently, the organization is uncompromising about a high quality of care for all its patients, largely women and children. Second, Likhaan strongly promotes the responsibility of the State to provide universal healthcare, including reproductive and sexual health. The organization  views its clinics as a cost-effective, high quality, and compassionate model for the government, not as a replacement. Clinics are an entry point for organizing and complements Likhaan’s national policy advocacy work on universal healthcare and reproductive health. Third, Likhaan broke with the prevailing tradition of Filipino peoples organizations when it began and insisted on paying their community health workers a decent wage, recognizing the burden that all women and particularly poor women who chose to become community health workers already carried.