XIII Thoughts on Embodiment and Women’s Agency
Embodied agency is a socio-culturally mediated act that pushes women who are at the edge of survival to use their bodies for domestic survival purposes. They work long hours in challenging environments to feed and sustain their families. Such agency is found in the concept of identity. The identities of the women vendors are shaped by their role as economic contributors. In many cases, they are solely responsible for ensuring their families have food and shelter. Our interviews showed that the women chose the vending trade because of its easy access, limited skill requirement, and very modest capital to start. In a way, the agency to engage in vending gives them a sense of power and worth but does not negate their perpetual sacrifice of waking up at 4:00 a.m. to cook the day’s meals for the family and returning home late at night to care for their children’s needs and do a few household chores. Their bodies are worked to the bone. It is critical to emphasize that despite the sacrifices they make, women vendors are often invisible in policy making and urban governance.
As mentioned earlier, Filipino identity is much less an individual construct than a socio-cultural one. The kapwa-tao attribute that is engrained in every Filipino signifies the self as part of the collective. Women vendors do not work alone. They have informal networks that assist them in finding locations and they support each other in their vending practices. They group together according to cultural heritage, familial ties, and long-term friendships. For example, in several of our interviews, the women described themselves and vending activities in reference to their ethnic group. “Doon, sa mga Muslim na nagtitinda ng mga cell phone covers” (There in that place, where the Muslims sell cell phone covers.) The embodied agencies these women employ are marked by their clothing and body markers (e.g. Muslims wear their hijabs and older Bontoc women have full tattoos on their arms.)
A reflection on women’s bodies is important in examining their health conditions. Low-income women often disregard self-care because of their need to prioritize their family’s survival,. They ignore symptoms of pain or illness and continue their daily routines until they are forced to rest. The women vendors commented that a day of rest is all it takes for their health to get back on track. Financial insecurity and family responsibilities drive them to delay seeking diagnosis and treatment. They usually seek health advise from family and friends who divert them to employ cultural practices rather than medicines. For example, for colds and influenza they suggest using Vick’s Vaporub on the chest and back; for dizziness, the scent of crumpled guava leaves; for stomach aches, drinking water with vinegar. The vendors’ bodies endure the symptoms for as long as possible. But if the women have to receive treatment in the hospital, the same relatives and friends are the first to offer support and caregiving duties.
Women vendors are inconspicuous and often regarded as invisible bodies that occupy spaces along busy sidewalks. People walk by them without giving thought of who they are and what they stand for. But the women’s agency is their lived knowledge of the streets, the characters and behaviors of regular folks. They exemplify Jane Jacob’s “eyes on the street.” Their invisibility affords them the power of unfettered observation of people and their habits. For example, some of our interviewees disclosed that they often know who will come around on a Wednesday to have a long drinking spree with his friends. During pay day, they can identify specific women who will grocery shop and pick up food from the vendors to take home for a dinner treat. Or older sugar daddies and their young college mistresses who go on dates to have merienda (snack) when tuition fees are due. These recognizable behaviors add to vendors’ power of knowing because of their embodied invisibility.
To close this Retrospective Chapter I must share how my conceptualization of healthy cities has evolved since the multi-year study of street vendors started in 1999. The World Health Organization’s interest in broadening the definition of global health and urban environments, began my inquiry into the intersection of planning, design, and health. The WHO’s definition of a Healthy City at that time was “one that is continually developing those public policies and creating those physical and social environments which enable its people to mutually support each other in carrying out all functions of life and achieving their full potential.” The premise for this definition was that for cities to be healthy they need effective and broad political commitment, inclusive intersectoral planning, and monitoring and evaluation. Although well-intended, the WHO initiative faced criticisms. Akin to the roots of most of these so-called “world” organizations, the mindset that defined and promoted the Healthy Cities project originated from industrialized countries in the Global North. The assumptions, methodologies, and evaluation metrics were biased toward cities in North America and Europe while diminishing their applicability to fast urbanizing areas in Asia, Africa, and the Americas (Awofeso, 2003). The views that prevailed in the movement hovered on abstract rhetoric made to advance the integration of health, environment, and economy. But these ideas and soft actions did not trickle down to the needs and priorities of local communities. Recognizing the limitations of WHO’s Healthy Cities initiative, and many other worldwide movements that ensued, I pivoted my support. Through readings, conversing with stakeholders and intellectuals, lecturing in the City Hall and local colleges, and reflecting on Baguio’s conditions and future potential, I eventually reached a moment of truth. To move the needle forward, context-specific interventions are necessary. These local actions, however, should be redefined with innovative ways of seeing the urban condition. Hopefully, this book is a first step treading toward that direction.
Moving beyond the Retrospective, I would like to present an emerging concept in my mind about the framing of Baguio as a healthy city. Without defining it, since the idea needs to incubate, I would rather illustrate the concept through images about the future of Baguio and other cities in the Global South. A paradigm shift is warranted. How do we operationalize and apply the nexus of health, environment, and economy? How do we surpass the noise that labels bring to bear on cities that are attempting to improve? Interestingly, there are so many labels that cities grab for branding. Sustainable cities, liveable cities, resilient cities, equitable and just cities— these are identifiers that eventually become meaningless for their lack of operationability. Urban visions abound in many cities but their translation into tangible impactful actions is where the challenge lies. We can reimagine Baguio’s healthy future by first identifying and keeping a running list of the urban challenges confronting the downtown area: vehicular congestion and pollution, uncontrolled building heights, extremely impervious surfaces, lack of green spaces, unmanaged solid waste, and many more. One should behold these problems as dynamic, complex, and emerging processes, not stagnant conditions. But we should not stop there. The heart of Baguio has many strengths and assets and we should tap into these opportunities for change and transformation.
Healthy cities are urban areas that exemplify a state of balance among facets of air, water, nature, people, alternative fueled vehicles, sustainable
Reflections on urban environments 135 urban materiality, and secure livelihoods and housing,—factors that affect the daily functions of people and their life aspirations. Healthy cities involve the inclusive participation of diverse sectors, and ordinary people, as many innovative solutions emanate from unexpected sources. Healthy cities are marked by a local community’s own definition of equilibrium. This final section describes brief re-imagined scenarios that manifest health. It does not, however, intend to prescribe definitive solutions to build healthy cities. Rather, I would like you to visualize the imageries I submit to you.
Downtown as a biophilic core: Baguio is known for its restorative qualities—cool air, pine trees, hills, year-long bloom of variety of flowers, and morning mist and fog. Infusing nature into the downtown pocket parks will serve as a refuge for people and wildlife. Instead of the predominant hardscape of stone and concrete, imagine well-maintained pine trees with landscaped protection for its sensitive roots. Birds build their habitat under the tree canopies. Recirculating small water features support their need for drinking and bathing but also produce calming sounds for park users. The Session Road median is cared for with trees and robust sunflowers. This serves as a noise buffer on Session Road, a high traffic volume street. Vertical greening strategies such as green walls and trellis-based facades are conspicuous in the Skyworld Building, CID, Hotel Veniz, Antipolo, Session Theater, Bueno, and other buildings. However, the green design does not conflict with the historical nature of these buildings. Lastly, roof gardens and landscaped gardens in vacant spaces add to the biophilic core. An exemplary example of this is in Singapore where an integrated ecological network was established to truly bring nature back to the city.
Broad access to health services: Healthy cities ensure that health services, information, and affordable treatment reach the poorest and most vulnerable. Baguio’s identity as a regional medical center pertains to the presence of medical schools and hospitals. However, poor people usually avail of services when their health conditions are at their worst. Imagine a “street clinic” with a health practitioner who engages in medical outreach to informal vendors and other vulnerable people right where they are located. She makes her regular clinical rounds by using a makeshift pod to hold examinations inside. Her backpack contains the basic medical tools. He is prepared to write out prescriptions for medicines or further request for diagnostic tests to be conducted at any of the local hospitals. Mercury Drug and St. Joseph’s Pharmacy on Session Road are part of the integrated “street health system” and they dispense prepaid medicines donated by private companies and generous donors. In terms of health practitioners, the integrated “street health system” is tied to the various medical and nursing schools where students participate in the outreach as part of their educational experience.
Microenterprise development and microfinance: My experience in initiating several microenterprise development programs in the United States among African American women gives me confidence that this is one of the many ways to empower women and give them the opportunity to sustain a livelihood. I am not naive to believe that microenterprise development is the solution to eradicating poverty. However, it alleviates economic insecurity to an extent. Business training and credit lending to informal vendors and other vulnerable groups would have an impact. Since 2005, The Year of Microcredit, the government, nonprofit and private sectors have been hesitant to implement a strong microenterprise/microfinance movement in Baguio. However, lessons learned from other communities can guide local leaders to build a culture of micro-economic development. The following are among some of the best practices I imagine for Baguio’s inclusive economy:
- • Participants in the microeconomy are financially literate;
- • They belong to a network of providers that believe in addressing the total needs of women microentrepreneurs (i.e. family responsibilities, health, education, religion);
- • They tap their social capital (social trust with other women vendors) to engage in joint lending schemes which have been proven to result in higher repayment and higher savings behavior, and thus reduced default probability. However, women choose which approach they would like to engage in: group lending scheme or individual loan borrowing;
- • They are astute about potential new market niches and willing to scale up through dynamic loan plans where microlenders assure repeat and larger loans based on repayment history;
- • They are committed to increasing savings over time and eventually making their own investment decisions.
An inclusive economy that supports microenterprise development/microfi-nance can be truly transformative. With an emphasis on women microentrepreneurs, these initiatives will directly impact household welfare.
Other re-imagined futures: When there is urban transformation as a result of value-based and shared local governance, many creative scenarios can be conceived. To complement the intersections of health, environment, and economy, other re-imagined practices emerge. These may include an integrated network of clean transportation types, routes, transfer points, and trip origin locations that decentralizes movement in the downtown periphery. The building of digital infrastructure to manage efficient urban processes is an investment moment for public-private partnerships. The carrying capacity of streets in downtown Baguio can be monitored using digital technology to detect traffic overloads. Action then can be enforced to mitigate the negative consequences. Lastly, healthy cities can employ a platform that shares live information about air quality, weather threats, health episodes, and even business opportunities that benefit the inclusive economy. Anything is possible, we just have to re-imagine.