Interview: Just How Things Should Be - Rodelyn (RD) Marte

You have achieved great success in being accepted as a ‘young leader.’ How did you begin this journey? 

I haven’t really come to comfortable terms with my being a ‘young leader.’ Whenever I get called such, I often can not 

help but silently think, ‘I am?!’ – in reaction to both the ‘leader’ and ‘young’ parts of the tag. My discomfort with the ‘leader’ part may well be because I could not help but ask what I have done or if I have done enough to be worthy of the distinction. As for the ‘young’ part, I think my discomfort comes from my having started out as a women’s rights activist and not having identified as ‘young’ until I became a youth activist through my membership in the Network of Asia Pacific Youth (NAPY). Before NAPY, the identities I owned were that of being a woman, a lesbian, a feminist activist from the Global South, a Filipino, an agnostic and probably a few more. ‘Young’ never figured in it. Also ‘youngness’ is subjective. I am 29 years old right now and 29 may be young relative to 35, 40, or 50 and above but relative to 25 and lower, I think not.

But if I were to just graciously accept the tag, I could say that my activist journey began with the women’s movement in the Philippines through work in a women’s health and rights organisation called ISSA. I’m a product of an activist (one can even say left-leaning) university, came from a very non-traditional family and have since early on held non mainstream-aligned ideologies but I was not really so political in college. It was my exposure to the Philippine women’s movement that surfaced the feminist and the activist in me. Now, I cannot imagine doing anything else but work for the advancement of women’s rights. 

Tell us about your work with NAPY. How do you go about advocacy work with young people and making a claim for their rights?

I am one of the coordinators of NAPY, a regional organisation which works towards advancing young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and ensuring meaningful participation of young people toward advancing and continuously pushing discussion and critical thinking about young people’s rights. For example, we used to say that youth is a basis for exclusion in decision-making processes and it used to be that we stopped our discussions at that. But now because of what our experience tells us, we say that in some cases youth could actually be an identity of privilege—a lot of funding goes toward youth issues and to some extent youth participation, in regional and international events there are usually slots guaranteed for young people, etc. Now what we question is the quality of that youth participation or the intent behind the participation. We do the same envelopepushing discussions around young people’s sexual rights, reproductive rights and so on.

Do you see any improvement and acknowledgement of the sexual and reproductive rights of young people in the region? What more needs to be done?

Definitely there have been changes, but as clichéd as I am afraid this sounds, the changes are far from enough to make young people’s SRHR situation in this region ideal. Youth SRHR thinking at the regional level – in the UN, among donor agencies and regional NGOs and NGO coalitions – has progressed although it could still do with a lot more advancements. However, at the local and national levels, at the level of service providers and policy makers, in the homes and schools or communities of young people, among young people themselves, the situation has either stagnated or worsened. In a number of countries we hear of sexuality education being banned, of age of marriage being lowered to ‘solve’ the ‘problem’ of unmarried sex; unmarried and young women and men continue to lack access to comprehensive, safe, non-judgmental and highquality SRHR services; pregnant girls still get kicked out of schools (if they are lucky to be attending school at all); the list of sob situations goes on.

There are a lot of things that need to be done and I would not even attempt to start listing them here, there is a lot of good literature on that already. What is worth mentioning though is that I think a needed first step is changing people’s attitudes and constructs about sexuality – sexuality has to be demystified, people (especially decision-makers) need to be comfortable with sexuality and sex, notions about sex and sexuality need to be recast.

How long have you been with ARROW? What political ideologies guide ARROW’s work in the region? 

I have been part of ARROW’s staff team only since 2007 but have known ARROW since 2000, through my local organisation which was an ARROW partner, and then through NAPY. I’ve attended ARROW meetings as a partner, had an internship with the organisation in 2004/05 and have served in its Programme Advisory Committee. It has been and remains to be an interesting and fulfilling journey.

ARROW is a feminist regional organisation committed to promoting and protecting women’s health, rights and needs, particularly in the area of women’s sexuality and reproductive health. It believes that good health and wellbeing and access to comprehensive and affordable gendersensitive health services are fundamental human rights.

ARROW believes in and supports local, national and regional partnerships for the advancement of SRHR. It also believes in information and resource-sharing and in evidence-based and grassroots reality-based SRHR advocacy. 

What are the specific programmes and activities you carry out to reach out to women? Which countries do you operate in? 

ARROW currently uses five interrelated strategies aimed at reorienting SRHR and related policies and programmes to make them women-friendly, strengthening the women’s movement and civil society for policy advocacy and improving women’s sexual and reproductive health and lives: (1) the INFOCOM strategy which aims to provide useful, cutting edge, critical and pro-active information to key SRHR stakeholders, (2) Evidence-based research, monitoring and advocacy on the women’s SRHR in the region, (3) Capacity building among ARROW partner organisations for SRHR policy advocacy, (4) Advocacy partnership development among SRHR organisations across and within localities, countries and sub regions in Asia Pacific and (5) Documentation and sharing of good SRHR NGO practices.

ARROW is also proud of a strategy it has initiated called the Women’s Health and Rights Advocacy Partnership or (WHRAP). WHRAP is part of the vision shared by ARROW and its partners to move forward the sexual and reproductive health and rights agenda through advocacy partnerships across the region. WHRAP brings together women NGO partners who are committed to advancing women’s SRHR and serves as a platform for supporting joint strategic planning and advocacy among these groups. WHRAP is currently implemented in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and China and ARROW is embarking on expanding WHRAP, intertwined with an ICPD (International Conference on Population and Development) 15 Monitoring Project to a total of 13 Asia Pacific countries in 2008.

How do you incorporate the ‘sexual’ component in reproductive health and rights issues? 

ARROW has been reflecting on and recognised its own need to give more attention to the sexuality component of its work as an SRHR NGO. So far we have been trying to incorporate positive sexuality affirming frameworks in our publications, partnership initiatives and advocacy interventions. We are working towards a more programmatic approach to doing this and hopefully, partnerships and engagements with organisations like yours working on sexuality issues would strengthen our efforts.

What are the challenges and tensions you face in your work? How do you meet them?

The work itself – meeting deliverables, multi-tasking, making sure what you are doing is relevant, reminding yourself to ground your work to the organisation’s bigger and ultimate goals is of course a challenge. For someone ‘young’, I guess another implicit (imagined or real) challenge is proving that you are good/good enough for what was entrusted you. Loving what you do, accepting that challenges are all part of a day’s work, knowing that what you are doing is more than work to you and keeping in sight the purpose of what you do usually helps.

How easy/difficult has it been for you personally to do all the things that you do? What are your sources of support? 

So far I have found great fulfillment in what I have chosen to do. There were a number of disillusionments along the way but one learns to love, live and deal with both the flaws and beauties of the women’s movement. 

I also think the kind of family and friends that I have has made it relatively easy for me to be a feminist activist and to do SRHR work. Not that my family is political but they are not conservative or fundamentalists which Filipino families/parents could easily be. I am also lucky that even when I was younger I’ve enjoyed a great degree of freedom to do what I want to do and believe in what I want to which I’ve realised is not the situation of other friends in the movement. What also makes the work more rewarding is that I consider the field I am in as my community; most of my close friends and my new family (me and my partner) are part of it.

What kind of changes would you like to see happening in the world in the next five years? 

This sounds like a beauty pageant question and I’m contemplating answering ‘World Peace!’ but would refrain from that. In five years, or at least in my lifetime, I want to see:

  • a recasting of power in this world so that it is enjoyed equally by women and men as well as people of diverse sexualities
  • economic wealth and political power redistributed among nations and individuals
  • discrimination on any basis eliminated
  • people enjoying healthy sexualities, whatever that is for them. I think this would make the world a definitely happier place 
  • and, yes, world peace!

Nothing much really. Just how things should be.

RD is a researcher, psychologist and social scientist by academic training and feminist activist by choice. She is currently Programme Manager for Advocacy and Capacity Building at ARROW and soon-to-age-out co-coordinator of the Network of Asia Pacific Youth (NAPY). She loves what she does, but if only she had the skills, she wouldn’t have minded being a poet, painter, guitarist or song writer.