Claire De Leon,
Executive Director, Babaylanes, the Philippines
I am Claire De Leon and I am the Executive Director of Babaylanes, a non-profit organization which capacitates LGBT youth, provides human rights education and organizes advocacy campaigns and activities. As Executive Director of Babaylanes, I also serve as the Secretary-General of Lagablab LGBT Network.
As our primary mandate, Babaylanes works with many LGBTQI student organizations across the Philippines. We have been providing organizing and advocacy training to these organizations, since Babaylanes was formed in 2008. Every year, we organize the National LGBT Students Network Conference where representatives from the organizations mentioned before are given training and opportunity to learn from each other.
Babaylanes is also working with APCOM and different LGBTQI organizations in Cambodia, Indonesia and Lao PDR on a project that would increase LGBTQI inclusion in the private sector.
What was life like before COVID-19, and service availability for LBQ women in the Philippines?
Before COVID-19, discrimination and stigma still permeate institutions and public perception. While LBQ cisgender women should be able to benefit from government services available for women, this is not always accessible in reality. In particular, healthcare practice is still largely heteronormative. This limits access of gender non-conforming women to sexual and reproductive health services. Additionally, this leads to misinformation, wrong assumption or anxiety-inducing experiences with health care providers.
With the effect of COVID-19 outbreak, how did you respond to this? Can you detail the evolving service needs of LBQ women during lockdown, and how community groups are able to address the issues?
Most institutions and organizations suspended operations due to the lockdown measures. Because of this, many ordinary services were not accessible. Additionally, because of the lockdown many Filipinos were not able to work. This has led to an increased need for economic support from both the government and from NGOS.
What were the issues that LBQ women experienced during this time? What are the gaps in terms of addressing the issues?
The COVID-19 pandemic and the government responses to it has increased the vulnerability of the LGBTQI community in general-and LBQ women in particular-to violence and discrimination.
LBQ youth who live with parents who are not accepting, became vulnerable to abuse in their homes. Because of that, their mental health also suffered. Additionally, LBQ cisgender women who are cohabiting were not recognized as households and were excluded from economic support from the government.
Some new organizations have emerged to provide support for women, including LBQ women and trans women. These services are often focused on sexual and reproductive health, and gender-based violence in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For our part, Babaylanes, through Lagablab Network, launched a reporting system for LGBTQI persons who have experienced discrimination, harassment or violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. The aim of this reporting system is to document the experiences of the community and to build a referral system to address their needs at this time.
How have you, staff, and volunteers working for NGOs been coping?
Metro Manila has been on varying levels of lockdown since March. Most organizations have shifted to work from home arrangement. Activities were reformatted to allow online implementation. Especially in the beginning of this change, we constantly monitored the well being of our staff and network members. We considered psychological and health well being as of primary importance, before we can be of help to the rest of the community. We also had to consider the security of our network, after there were reports of arrests of anyone who spoke against the government.
How have you been able to seek resources to fill in the gaps? Who has been able to help provide support to your work during the pandemic?
Since a lot of our planned physical activities had to be modified for online implementation, we were able to reallocate our resources to cover additional expenses for communications, subscriptions to online platforms and setting up of our reporting and referral system. Additionally, we allocated some resources for COVID-19 response, including office health protocols and donations to urban poor communities in our area.
How has COVID-19 outbreak changed the way that you/your organisation and other NGOs will be working in the future?
The pandemic has surfaced the need to document the vulnerabilities and the experiences of discrimination and violence of the LGBTQI community. Furthermore, it has surfaced the increased need to be able to immediately respond to immediate needs of the members of the community, including economic, medical and legal support.
Moving forward, what do you think must be adjusted/rethink in LGBTQI work post COVID-19?
Because in times of pandemic, people become more dependent on government support, there is a need to work with local government units for the recognition and protection of their LGBTQI constituents. While we are still advocating towards a national legislation that would give protection for LGBTQI Filipinos, having these protections at the local level would increase their inclusion in society.
How have you been able to cope as leader of the organisation during this time?
It was extremely difficult, especially in the beginning. It was difficult to balance personal welfare, welfare of our organization members and staff, and of the community. There is always the doubt whether we are doing enough. I am grateful to have colleagues in our organization and in our network who are catering to specific sub-sectors and contributing to the greater inclusion of LGBTQI in Philippine society.
What would you like to say to donors?
The Philippines is in a unique situation given the current political climate, government response to the health crisis and the resurfacing of homophobic and transphobic public opinion. Support from donors is very valuable for LGBTQI rights and human rights organizations.