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Student voices on women’s issues

“I am a constant reminder of my mother’s mistake… In the Philippines, there are about 15 million solo parents, 14 million of whom are women, and one of them is my mom.”—“The Filipina Woman Raising a Flower on Rocky Soil,” by Emrich Baltazar, St. Scholastica’s College.

“… Nine months later, she holds a miniature hand in her palm, but no one to hold hers. She’s only fifteen… How do you care for a child, if you are a child yourself?”—“Teen Pregnancy: The Downfall of the Filipino Youth,” by Alessandra Isabelle Gazo, La Salle Green Hills.

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These passages are from two of the winning essays of the annual 2021 Harvard Global WE (Harvard Alumni for Global Women’s Empowerment) writing competition—a novel and memorable way of having the Filipino youth commemorate International Women’s Day and March as Women’s Month.

I first heard about this activity when I judged the entries from International School Manila, along with two other former colleagues last year. It saddened me that there were no other local schools represented, and I was determined to cast a larger net the next time around. This seemed too good an opportunity to miss for our youth to consider the issues confronting Filipino women. It is never too early for them to seriously regard women’s empowerment as a given, as a human right. I was incredulous that a school like St. Scholastica’s College, with its pioneering Institute of Women’s Studies, would not be part of it.

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The desire to engage Philippine schools was also shared by US-based Fil-Am Leah Abaya Keane, the treasurer of Harvard Global WE, which coordinates the program. Keane was a Filipino scholar at ISM before going to college at Harvard and getting a graduate degree at Fordham, and she was aware of how such a writing project would enrich any school program.

The topic to respond to in a 750-word essay was: What is the biggest challenge facing women and girls in your country today?

It wasn’t difficult to invite schools to participate; many immediately responded with enthusiasm because Harvard Global WE made it a breeze for teachers and administrators to launch the project. The school was provided its own personalized posters for display with the school name, and given the flexibility to schedule the contest, preferably to end on Women’s Month. It was a competition within the school, and one winner was selected by a three-member panel of readers. The organizer handled all the logistics of scoring and judging. All that was needed from the participating schools was the call to involve as many Grade 11 students as possible, both male and female. It was thought best to limit the activity to that grade level, as Grade 12 students were presumed to be busy with other academic deadlines.

I was eager to be a reader again, and my co-readers from Manila, although for different schools, were former St. Scholastica’s College dean Ma. Asuncion Azcuna and professional copywriter Jae Salazar Abaya. Despite the number of entries we had to read—actually a welcome problem—our task was made lighter with the prescribed matrix template provided by the organizer, which automatically computes scores for you! My disappointment was not having a male winner from the schools, although Raya School had one as an Honorable Mention. I will continue to await more male voices.

This year, the winners received a copy of “We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. They also became a part of an international network of award recipients, and got published online (https://www.globalwe-essays.org/winning-essays) with a view toward a possible book compilation.

Special thanks to the seven schools that participated this year—Beacon Academy, Immaculate Conception Academy, La Salle Greenhills, Raya School, St. Jude, St. Scholastica’s College, and Xavier School Nuvali—for giving their students every opportunity to discover and empower themselves.

And now, to take up the challenge from Sean Andrea Macapinlac of La Salle Greenhills, as she put it in “Kababae Mong Tao”: “Spread your legs wide till you can soar the skies. Take up space and sit on your throne.”

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Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is founding director of the creative writing center Write Things, and former chair of the National Book Development Board.

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TAGS: 2021 Harvard Global WE, Commentary, International Women's Day, Neni Sta. Romana Cruz, students, women's issues, Women's Month
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