Sarah Jane Biton is a 26-year-old activist from the Philippines. As a Youth Champion for the Asia Safe Abortion Partnership, she is fighting for women’s sexual and reproductive rights in her country and beyond. She has also worked with the Family Planning Organization of the Philippines and the Student Christian Movement and is a registered nurse, artist, and actress. She has used her diverse skills to help mobilize marginalized women in urban, rural, and poor communities to stand up for social change.
The following is a recent interview with Sarah Jane conducted by IWHC Program Officer Jessie Clyde.
Could you describe where you’re from?
I used to live in the province. It’s an uptown community, which is far from the city and a 12-hour bus ride if you want to go to Metro Manila. It’s a rural area. I remember, it was only when I was in high school when the road got fixed and cemented. And it was only when I was about to finish grade school that we got a telephone line.
I grew up with handicraft makers—who are mostly women—since my parents are in the handicraft business. The women were the typical conservative Filipina. I used to listen to their stories and rumors about men, courting, and relationships. Also stories about who had a mistress, or who is flirting with whom. It’s a small community where everybody knows each other, and if you do something against the moral standards and norms, people will be talking about you.
How did you become involved in advocating for sexual and reproductive rights for young people? What drew you to the movement?
I’ve been a human rights activist since I was 16 years old. Women’s rights advocacy was introduced to me when I worked in the community. I volunteered for a women’s rights organization, as a community organizer and mobilizer, at 18. I did fieldwork and also gathered women’s stories. With those experiences, I felt that, for me, social studies and philosophical theories were not enough, and I needed to work more directly on maternal and child health care and women’s health. So, I went back to school and studied nursing. I found sexual and reproductive health appealing because at first it is seems to be a very personal thing, but in fact it is a political, economic, and social issue. It’s a basic human right and women’s right, not only a personal matter.
What encouraged me to be part of the movement are the Filipino women whom I encountered. A lot of women from the rural and urban areas suffered from rape and gender-based violence. Most of the mothers, especially the young people, were also clueless about their rights as women, their right to decide about their own bodies, sexuality, and reproductive health. They were being judged, stigmatized, and even traumatized by society if they did something against the “moral standard,” like having an abortion. I found it really heartbreaking to hear their stories of agony, pain, and trauma.
Tell us about your new project that came out of the Youth Champion workshop. Specifically, what are you hoping to accomplish or change?
I’m working on providing sexual and reproductive health information, including on safe abortion, to women in the Philippines via mobile phones and online platforms, like email and social media chats. Hopefully, we can help women make decisions with scientific information. I want to start talking about abortion rights and the WHO guidelines on safe abortion.
Also, we are working on the post-abortion care forum. It’s a continuation of my former project, which gathered stories about post-abortion care, but now we will be gathering information on human rights violations related to post-abortion care treatment. Also, we are trying to start the discourse on abortion stigma. I will be showing videos as part of this discussion.
I want to change the perspective people have about abortion and post-abortion care.
Who or what most inspires you in the work you’re doing?
There are a lot of people who inspire me to keep working for sexual and reproductive rights, including conservative fundamentalists who propagate backward and unscientific knowledge and moral standards. I feel that our society, especially the Philippines, still has a long way to go before human rights can be fully realized. And they are holding it back.
What motivates me to keep going is my sense of humanity. I love my fellow human beings. I want the world to be ours.
What is the biggest challenge you face in your work?
Resources—human resources specifically. Though there are many sexual and reproductive health advocates and women’s rights advocates in the Philippines, only a few are specifically working on post-abortion care and safe abortion rights. So, we really need to organize more youth and advocates. And to do this, we need to have more education sessions and informational campaigns. But we lack funds to do this. Our resource capacity, as compared to the organizations and institutions that advocate against reproductive rights, is very minimal. We do what we can on a small-scale, but we still need to reach more of the population. If we really want change, we need to shape the minds of the majority.
What is your greatest dream or vision for your community or country?
My vision is for people to be able to fully realize their human rights, including their sexual and reproductive health rights.
I dream that no woman in the Philippines would suffer from extreme pain, danger, and insecurity from unsafe abortion. That safe and accessible abortion is being provided, and abortion rights are being recognized.