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Church, State and Sexuality in the Philippines:
Secular Rights & Monopolies of Morality
Carolina S. Ruiz Austria
Feminists have critiqued the use of human rights (and women's human rights) in framing the analysis and informing the strategies around sex-based dominance and power relations. Barker (2002) ( tackled the paradox of human rights-based claims rooted in liberalism and secularism. At the same time that "human rights" notions steeped in liberalism and secularism delimit the egalitarian possibilities of "human rights," by focusing on nation-states, positive law, universalistic assumptions and altogether leave Western dominance (geopolitical inequalities) unquestioned, the same human rights notions have proved useful and practical for challenging sexism perpetuated through cultural traditions and even religious beliefs.

Taking into consideration Baker's critique of the tendency of "women'shuman rights" framing to not only gloss over the conditions which promote violations of women's rights but also peddle a Western secular model and system couched in "secularism," pitting what Gerwal described as "first world freedoms," versus "third world repressions," how has the utilization of women's human rights to frame and articulate a range of issues by the women's movement played out in the Philippine context, particularly the sexual?

This essay looks at the challenge presented by Barker (2002) when she tackled the limitations posed by coining feminist agendas as "women's human rights" by examining the promise of secularism (in Philippine legal texts) as well as the actual experience and application of it in the Philippines, particularly focusing on notions of women's sexuality as shaped and influenced by State law and policy.

The essay submits that even given Barker's critique of the built-in limitations of secular rights framing, not the least of which is being limited to working within institutions and structures which reinforce both the structures themselves and the inequality it fully supports, rights claiming in the context of a country like the Philippines is also taking place in the context of the contest to define, re-define, explore and challenge the ever-changing notions of the State in the era of globalization.

Various notions of classical "state welfare" and "state services" have permeated claims-making messages and advocacy positions of"reproductive health advocates" as well as parallel social movements, which include the local women's movements in the Philippines for the last twenty or so years. In the context of a dwindling amount of national resources allocated to basic services, it is no secret that the Philippines (among others like it) has been saddled with a gargantuan debt crisis, the full effects of which has only been somewhat stayed and cushioned by the scale of its dollar reserves earned on the backs of overseas workers,majority of whom are Filipino women.

Indeed, "rights assertion," in the realm of basic services in the country, not only embodies "rights" frameworks in its quintessentially liberal notions of the individual, and even of women as citizens, but also is necessarily premised on a notion of what the Philippine state is and ought to be in that context of "rights exercise." It is in the midst of this contestation of the "State" as well as analysis and positions on issues of the sexual, particularly "sexual exploitation" that local women's movements have branched out in apparent divergence. This divergence of strategies among local feminists and feminist groups has ranged from the types of legal strategies employed vis a vis the state (whether demanding and focusing on penal law sanctions or on the other hand, welfare and support services); the creation of new legal categories to substitute the old ones and the treatment of sexual abuse experienced by women; as well as their respective utilization of "rights" analysis and positions.

The essay explores how the clashes among local feminists about issues framed as "sexual exploitation" versus "choice," have a lot to do with largely unexamined notions of the Philippine version of the secular state, its laws and its policies, and ultimately its role in"protecting" women on one hand, or on the other end, "providing them an enabling environment for the exercise of rights." Likewise it looks into how relatively unexamined notions and forms of "state protection" have been invoked all too often in the name of women's rights, but have ended up violating the same rights.

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