Fieldwork Series: Davao

[Week 102] Welcome to Davao! My first stop on the long fieldwork journey was Davao, the largest city in the Philippines in terms of landmass and the fourth most populous. While I had done my background reading on the history of Davao, complete with a detailed study of political chismis from pre-Marcos to present, I knew that among the cities in my micro-comparative case study, I was least familiar with Davao. It is a limitation I acknowledge in my research: I had only been in Davao once a few years ago, as a tourist, and indeed the limitation extended to not having a large network there with the implied lack of personal connections required to gain interviews. Researchers in the field know that often it isn’t your institutional affiliation that gets you in the door, it’s who you know, and if you don’t know anyone… collecting data gets a lot tougher.

That said, all was not bleak: a familiarity with the three most commonly spoken languages, English, Tagalog, and Bisaya is certainly an asset when doing fieldwork in the Philippines, as well as three pre-arranged interviews in Davao: with Atty. Meong Cabarde a strong SRHR advocate and Prof. Bing Chan from the Ateneo de Davao University, as recommended by my fellow Erasmus Mundus Joint Doctorate (EMJD) scholar and sole Dabawenyo-contact Nonoy Ybanez Tomacruz, and Dr. Dada Estuart, chairperson of the Reproductive Health Network and of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Brokenshire Integrated Health Ministries Inc. (BIHMI) Network in Davao as well as of POGS Mindanao, who was linked to me by my parents’ medical network. Unfortunately, Atty. Meong was in Australia the week I arrived, so that cut my interviewees down to two.

When we landed in Davao, I admit, I was worried. I only had two confirmed interviewees and a lot of doubts. Would it be a waste of time? Would I by some miracle be able to find what I needed, research-wise?

The Dabawenyos responded with resounding support. Despite only having met me that very day, Prof. Bing and Dr. Dada were the epitome of encouragement: they linked me to Jeff Fuentes, from the City Health Office, Lyda Canson, chairperson emeritus of Gabriela Davao and one of the first Dabawenya feminists, Councilor Joselle Villafuerte, one of the key figures in local government pushing towards more and better SRHR care, Lorna Mandin, head of the Davao City Integrated Gender Development Division, and so forth.

Simply put, Davao is a sight to behold. Having lived in Manila, Australia, Italy, Sweden, and Brussels, and having either observed or worked closely with SRHR groups in each area, I can confidently say that I am familiar with each countries’ strengths and limitations. Speaking with the local actors and observing health services in action in Davao however blew me away.

Councilor Villafuerte very kindly devoted hours of her time explaining the origin and contents of the Davao Women’s Code, as well as her proposed new MNCHN and AIDS ordinances. These were and are at least two decades before any such local ordinance has been passed in the capital, and certainly ages before the RH Law was passed in 2012. The RH Law, also the object of my study, is still facing birthing pains as it is being simultaneously implemented and fought at every corner while Davao’s ordinances have long been established in code and practice. Prof. Chan showed us what a university is meant to be: despite Ateneo’s Jesuit leadership, the university has historically welcomed dissenting ideas, promoting a culture of discussion and debate even with regard to sensitive topics like family planning and sexual health. Furthermore, beyond the realm of the theoretical, ADDU also implemented gender-forward policies— particularly with regard to pregnant students. For those who are unaware, many private universities in the Philippines have an expulsion policy towards girls who find themselves pregnant out of wedlock. Not in ADDU, there they value the woman and the child and function as an academic institution and not as judge and juror. Remember, this is a Jesuit university in the largest Catholic country in Asia.

Speaking with Jeff Fuentes of the Davao City Health Office was similarly informative, he candidly explained Davao’s current sexual and reproductive health programs, and of particular interest was that all their work is being done with the support of the government and with the dignity of the individual in mind. AIDS testing, to make an example, can be done outside of the hospital, at the convenience and discretion of the individual who needs to be tested. This is free. While AIDS testing is also free or very cheap in other countries, individuals always have to go to the clinic— typically a dedicated STD clinic— which comes with its own social risk. As there is great global stigma towards HIV positive individuals, this method that Davao is a perfect example of innovative care.

One of the best things that I recognized during the course of my research in Davao: local actors work together. Gone is the distrust between government and NGO, between activists and corporate donors. Dabawenyos born in Davao and Dabawenyos who simply live in Davao are the same, and many actively cooperate towards the betterment of their city. Also blurred is the generational gap­— young RH advocates are working with mid-generational advocates as well as the founding members of Davao’s feminist movement. It was incredible.

With Lyda Canson, her husband, and my mother.
With Lyda Canson, her husband, and my mother.

We met Lyda Canson on our last day in Davao. We literally had all our baggage in the trunk of the car, and drove to meet her at her house near Sasa Wharf. Again, at first I was apprehensive— she is one of the biggest names in Davao and in the Philippines, highly respected by everyone, she had suffered a small accident so she could meet us in the city, so here we were, off to bother her at her house. What right did I, a young PhD researcher have, to disturb the “Mother of Equality”? It turns out, my fears were unfounded. Ma’am Lyda is such a warm, welcoming woman, and she and her husband made us feel immediately at home at their sprawling garden-like estate. It also helped that they had a litter of two-month old puppies. Even though a researcher’s credibility may take a hit when the first thing they do at an important interview is to squeal and drop to the ground, sometimes it can’t be helped.

My mother had accompanied me to Davao, making room in her busy schedule to spend time with me as she only seems me once, maybe twice a year. It is a very good thing she’s my mother as otherwise I couldn’t afford an assistant who is the best pediatric oncologist in the country! Since the interviews rapidly filled up the entire week so much so that exhaustion was a reality the last few days— we didn’t even get to see any of Davao’ famous sights such as the Philippine Eagle Reserve or the Freedom Park, any free time I had, I napped— my mother booked a little overnight treat at Pearl Farm. Formerly an actual pearl farm, the place is now a beautifully secluded beach resort. It was monsoon season so it was practically empty, so we took advantage by taking hundreds of photos on their white sand beaches. Nothing can compare to the beauty of a Philippine beach, specially after a week’s hard work.

Consolidating data.

In sum, I cannot stress enough how grateful I am to the people of Davao for being so accommodating and for devoting so much of their own time to my research. I also cannot stress how much Davao impressed me not only as an impartial researcher but as a Filipino.

No fewer than three strangers came up to us to welcome us to Davao and to remind us that the city was a non-smoking city. Can you imagine being able to exit a building to be greeted with the fresh mountain breeze? No smokers huddling around ash trays, ruining everyone’s right not to have cancer? The city was so safe that walking around at night was not only possible but enjoyable, and we even had some freshly-roasted garlic nuts to snack on. Can you imagine a city where unaccompanied minors are in their homes by 10pm, and where loud karaoke does not go on and on endlessly into the wee hours of the morning? That’s Davao. And they have had this progress silently, powerfully, decades before anything in the National Capital Region.

I do have quite a few hours of audio recordings as well as the transcripts for Davao’s local gender and RH ordinances to pore over so the Davao section is far from over, but so far so good. Off to Cebu!

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