She is just 22, but Adrienne Onday already knows she probably will not have children.
“I feel like it’s not compatible with what I want for myself,” explains the Filipino researcher and feminist activist.
“What I really want is to teach and research sociology. And for me, that might entail a lot of travelling. Having a family – a baby – would mean that I have to take into consideration a child who would exist in that kind of reality. And unfortunately, that kind of situation is not suitable for children.”
Onday admits she thought about motherhood when she was growing up, even coming up with ideas on how she would raise her child. But her experience taking care of her three younger siblings and her younger cousins, coupled with her family’s high expectations that she would become a mother, changed her mind.
In the Philippines, the idea that a woman can have a child-free existence is still considered taboo, particularly among older generations who believe it’s their duty to preserve the status quo.
Dr Nathalie Verceles, director of the Centre for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of the Philippines, says it’s natural for older Filipinos to have firm beliefs about the importance to a women of having children. “They grew up in an entirely different context from ours, and we need to understand that,” she says.
A mother herself, Verceles says the “cultural need” for motherhood comes from the way women are viewed in Filipino society. “There’s what we would call the ‘theory of biological determinism’ that says because women have the capacity to bear and give children, this should be extended to all the other roles they play in society,” she says.
“This is why society reproaches women who decide to not have children – because it’s seen as our primary function.”
Cultural researcher Jazz Tugadi, 25, says there’s a double standard in the Philippines. “As soon as they are born, Filipino women are socialised to follow a very specific path, with motherhood as the last stage, as it is the fulfilment of their ‘destiny’,” she says. “But if men choose to not pursue parenthood, they are applauded and celebrated as bachelors.”
Filipino women are also widely expected to become wives before they become mothers. It’s a circumstance that has proven challenging for 31-year-old television producer Jeng Basijan, who has a son and a daughter with her long-term partner.
“Our parents expected me and my sisters to obey their rules,” says Basijan. “We couldn’t have romantic relationships while studying, we must be married, and we can’t have kids before marriage.” Her conservative parents did not react kindly to her first pregnancy in 2016, she says.
“I was banished from our house. My father took down all my photos from the wall and he threw away the books I had worked so hard to collect. Even more than being banished, that hurt me deeply.”
Basijan now lives with her long-time partner, their two children, and the three kids he had with his late wife.
She says that even though she is well into “the marrying age”, she feels no urge to join her partner in wedlock any time soon. “I put more weight on our relationship than the ceremony,” she says. “Plus, with our kids, I find it a bit impractical. A wedding just isn’t our priority right now.”
Filmmaker Cha Roque, 34, is another Filipino woman who flouts society’s rules. Unlike Basijan, she grew up in a more liberal, matriarchal household. “Now I live with my daughter Kelsey, my girlfriend and our two dogs in a flat that we rent,” she says.
Her sexual orientation had not been an issue for her until an incident involving her daughter.
“Kelsey was made fun of at school for posting our family photo [online], and the teacher’s response was ‘Think before you post,’” she says. “I don’t think that would be the reaction if a kid was laughed at because of his or her traditional family photo.”
She admits that the vitriol directed at her and her partner by total strangers makes her feel weak from time to time. But as hurtful as the comments may be, she continues to steel herself to keep pushing for change for herself, her family, and other families like theirs.
Verceles says entrenched opinions can take a long time to shift. “In the Philippines, if you’re married, you have to have kids. If you have kids, you have to be married. But we have to be more open now, because there are so many possibilities.”
She says that raising awareness about women’s equal rights is important for society. “Particularly among our young boys,” she says. “We should start early.”
There has been some progress for women in the Philippines. More Filipinos are speaking out about their decision not to have children, breaking with centuries-old thinking that women must first and foremost be married mothers, and a woman without children must have something wrong with her.
In her 2018 graduate study on voluntarily childless women in the Philippines, researcher Tugadi observed that age, civil status and, notably, religious affiliation affected a woman’s decision to be child-free.
Worldwide, there has been a dramatic decline in birth rates and some women cite freedom and economic security as their reasons for deciding to remain childless.
Despite these changes, there are still women who choose to follow society’s dictates, such as 24-year-old accounting clerk Jasmin Carpio, who firmly believes women should get married and have children. “I think women should be married and become mothers because these complete them,” she says. “Personally, I feel like something would be missing in my life if I didn’t.”
She and her boyfriend of six years have discussed marriage, but no date has been set. She stresses the importance of having a Catholic wedding, “so that God will be with us on that day”. A church wedding, she adds, is important to her family. “My parents and relatives were all married in church, so I want to have the same experience.”
Even though women’s movements have been tirelessly fighting for acceptance for those who deviate from social norms, women who decide to adhere to old-fashioned beliefs should not be shamed, says Onday, the young sociology researcher.
“A woman owns the right to decide for herself what she wants and does not want in life. What matters is that she chose it and she will not be judged for it,” she says.
The discussion about women’s rights and choices in the Philippines must be continuously pushed forward in the country, she adds, especially at a time when women’s advancement is facing obstacles in certain places around the world. Equal pay for equal work, and a balance of men and women in government seem a long way off in most nations.
Men need to understand the importance of women’s rights, Onday says. “Aside from actively lobbying for the increase of rights and freedom for women, we also have to actively engage men and remind them and be able to teach them that they play to have a part in movement too.”
Actions need not be grand; rather, they can be small, achievable, sustainable steps, activists say. For television producer Basijan, it starts with how parents raise their children.
“Parents and the home play a big role in forming a child’s world view, which is what I am trying to do now with my kids,” she says. “I want them to know that they are not limited to what society expects them to be. If I see my daughter playing with cars, I just let her. Why should I stop her?”
Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.