Saturday, April 12, 2008

Our Keynote Speaker, Emmi De Jesus!

Emmi Amaya De Jesus was born to parents of humble and hardworking peasant backgrounds from different Philippine provinces. Due to economic conditions both moved to the capital city Manila for a better life where they met and married. Even in the city, the De Jesus family struggled economically with her father working as a taxi driver and her mother being a home care provider. The eldest daughter of 7 children Emmi took on responsibilities of helping her mother raise her siblings and maintain the household. She excelled in school and was conscious of her family’s economic struggles, once citing that even though school was free sometimes her siblings didn’t have enough money for transportation to go to school. Despite this Emmi was salutatorian of her elementary school and passed the exam to enter Manila Public Science High School, one of the more prestigious public high schools. She went to the University of the Philippines for college and graduated with a BS in Physics.

During her college years, President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law to quell the uprising social activism that challenged his corrupt government. Emmi was a part of “First Quarter Storm” a time period of militant student activism during martial law. She honed a lot of her organizing skills as a student and had the opportunity to work with trade unions and learn more about the exploitation and oppression of Filipino laborers.

In 1977 as part of a May Ist labor day action, she and two other colleagues were putting stickers on jeepneys (Philippine public transportation) that highlighted workers issues and demands. Unfortunately one of the passengers was a police agent and arrested two of the three activists when they ran from the jeepney. This arrest exposed Emmi to how brutal the military was and how Martial Law was being used as means to exercise state power through military might. Emmi’s house was raided and her sister was picked up for questioning and later Emmi’s husband was arrested with very vague charges. The military subjected to mental and psychological torture, often letting her hear how they tortured other arrested activists.

Emmi was released ahead of her husband because of humanitarian reason when she found out she was pregnant. Her husband was released together with other political detainees during the visit of international human rights lawyer as part of the people's organizations' campaign on human rights and against fascism by the Marcos' government.

This was where Emmi started her involvement with the women's movement. She was one of the founding members of SAMAKANA, formed in September 1983. Originally, the name stood for Samahan ng Malayang Kababaihang Nagkakaisa (United Free Women) and composed of women of various professions but majority were women from the urban poor communities. SAMAKANA was one of the organizers of the all-women march in October 28, 1983 where they were able to gather around 10,000 women from various sectors carrying the demand to end Marcos dictatorship.

This led to further coordination and processing among women's groups until the decision was arrived at to coalesce and form an all-womens group.In March, 1984, GABRIELA-Philippines was born, a national alliance of women's organizations where SAMAKANA was a founding member.

Emmi continued to work as an organizer of women in urban poor communities. With 3 children growing up and with a very supportive husband who agreed to be the primary income earner for the family, she had the opportunity to continue and develop her work in the women's movement. Emmi made it a point to expose her children to the work she would do and bring them whenever possible; be it in the community, in the meetings, or in street actions. She shared with them the issues and the work that is done vis-a-vis the national situation, the women's situation.

In 1987 Emmi became part of the GABRIELA National Office. She held various positions ranging from part of the administration to coordinatorship of the Campaigns Department. She also did organizing work among women professionals, young women based in schools and women workers while part of the National Secretariat. In these years structures and other organizational matters of the alliance went through various changes. More importantly, GABRIELA principles were sharpened and made sure that its programs of actions are more direct and pronounced for women of marginalized sectors.

In 1998, at the 8th GABRIELA National Congress, Emmi was elected Deputy Secretary General and held this position until 2003. In 2001, Liza Maza, the elected Secretary General, ran and won as one of the 3 representatives under the Bayan Muna Partylist, and Emmi practically functioned as the SecGen of this alliance. In 2003, at its 9th Congress, she was elected as the Secretary General and holds the position at present.

In reflection, Emmi notes that “…24 years of my existence have been fruitful as being part of GABRIELA. With my 3 children now grown-up and all married, with two grandchildren (one each from my two daughters), I take pride that they know me not just as their mother but an activist. My being a GABRIELA is not just delivering my work but a way of life, a 24/7 thing, applying our principles in practical life.”

She also notes that though age and the accompanying stress brought about by my involvement are now taking their toll with my physical capacity she is still trying to her best to deliver what is expected of her. It is the strong support of Gabriela co-workers that makes this possible. She is inspired by the expansion of the organization in the communities and the successful campaigns launched. Youngblood in the organization gives her confidence that this work shall continue to develop and improve as long as the basis for our existence to struggle for women's rights and welfare are there. She is looking forward to the growing support of Gabriela friends internationally and the empowerment of Filipina compatriots with the formation of a Gabriela USA chapter that will educate, organize and mobilize Filipinas towards our liberation.