Ph.D. Candidate and Gates Scholar | University of Cambridge
You are doing a Ph.D. at Cambridge. Why did you decide to do a Ph.D.?
In my Ph.D. research, I explore the interaction between anti-trafficking policies in the Philippines and the lives of sex workers. I find that their voices haven’t been heard in policy formulation and program evaluation, so I chose to make interviews with sex workers a core part of my research strategy.
Having worked in the development sector, I grew curious about the relationship between the state society and low-income and vulnerable women. We regularly implement numerous interventions and raise funding to help and protect women, but I wanted to interrogate the assumptions behind these interventions, understand their effects, and assess any unintended consequences. Good intentions are great, but intentions need to be interrogated and operationalized, too.
A Ph.D. program felt like a natural next step because the academic environment would allow me to explore these questions with rigor, explore them with intellectual distance and honesty, give me access to critical feedback.
You mentioned obtaining your Master’s in Gender Development at the University of Melbourne. Tell us about your master’s thesis.
My thesis was about how access to microcredit affected the household relations of female borrowers. In the development sector, a common practice is to target female borrowers for microcredit loans with the intention to empower women. If women have access to credit and income, then it’s easier for them to advocate for their rights, organize, and maybe leave abusive relationships. I wanted to examine this assumption and interviewed borrowers in the Philippines – women, mostly mothers. I found that the realities are more complex.
For my respondents, it definitely was not a straightforward process of earning an income and then fighting for their rights. For these women, their working hours increased because they took on more jobs to invest the money and pay back the loans, but their husbands weren’t sharing the housework. They felt they were better able to provide for their children at the expense of their own free time and health, and if given a choice, they would prefer more state subsidies on education and healthcare rather than having to carry most of the burden to improve their family’s lives in the guise of empowerment. This was interesting because the original assumption was that they would collectivize and advocate for their rights, which isn’t what happened. Most of their income went to their families. Access to credit expanded their traditional conception of motherhood. This meant they used the access to get better at child rearing and domestic work and provide more for their families. It made me think harder about our interventions. What we did in the name of empowerment was to increase the work burden of the women and introduce more obligations to them. Should this be our key strategy?
In the anti-trafficking sector, we intervene through awareness campaigns, protective services like rescue homes and shelters, and alternative livelihood options for the victims that we rescue. I wonder about the assumptions we’re making about those we call victims. How are they usually portrayed in strategic communications and official discourse? You see images of women in chains and women being abducted or thrown into a van, but are these portrayals consistent with their lived realities? In anti-trafficking, a common assumption is sex workers are all victims. The preferred way of dealing with sex workers is to rescue them and rehabilitate them, but I realized that many of them go back to their work after they are released. What might be the reason behind this? Were we really helping them with our interventions? Are the alternatives we provide them – hairdressing, baking, sewing, domestic work, factory work – really sustainable? What is the effect of increasing the control of the police over their lives, and might these interventions enable some other forms of violence?
Tell us about your fieldwork and data collection methods.
Based on my fieldwork, I have been collecting data by talking to sex workers, and many of them have experienced abuse at the hands of police. They feel resentment toward the rescue programs because it creates economic dislocation – they don’t have income. What realistic alternatives are we providing for them? What is our basis for saying what they should and should not be allowed to do in life? I may not have clear answers to these questions, but exploring them is important.
When did your interests in women’s empowerment become clear to you?
At various stages in my life, I have constantly found reasons to want to create more space for women to thrive. In college, I was a competitive debater and participated in major international competitions. In one major tournament, after delivering my speech, I went up to an older male judge and asked for feedback. He said that I should have just worn a shorter skirt. I realized that sexism permeates even progressive “activities” like debating.
I have also been sexually harassed and felt unsafe. I recall being interrupted and talked over. I haven’t experienced anything egregious by any measure. In that sense, I’m lucky and quite privileged but can still feel it even in this state of privilege.
In conversations with sex workers, they tell me about being shamed by the police. When they direct complaints about abusive customers, the police respond: “What do you expect? You’re a sex worker. If you sell sex, it’s not rape.” The families that benefit from the sex workers’ income degrade them and distance themselves – until the next time the women give them money. In these relationships and interactions, our conceptions of female sexuality and what is acceptable or unacceptable for women often define society’s reactions. I’m committed to understanding the nature of these interactions, how gender plays a role, and how these roles can be transformed.
You have about eight years of experience coaching debate and public speaking around the world. Tell us about your most memorable experience.
My experience with debate and public speaking was transformative. It helped shape my intellectual disposition and pushed me beyond my comfort zone. With debate, you have to argue for positions that may not line up with your personal views. it forces you to think about alternative perspectives that you might not have considered. You become more tolerant.
You learn to listen carefully and how to break down your opponent’s argument without misrepresenting it. You need to take the strongest argument and turn it on its head. You learn how to structure your own ideas and provide evidence. You learn how to not take disagreements personally because debate tournaments are intellectual exercises.
For 2 years, I coached the Palestinian national team. I coached teams in about 40 countries, but this one team was special because the situation in Palestine meant the team faced limitations most other students did not. I was working with school kids and introduced them to the almanac. I told them they could consult it when they encountered an unfamiliar debate topic. They were excited to read through it, and then, one of the students told me they couldn’t find their country in the almanac. I didn’t know what to say and had to explain that the world is sometimes unjust. As an outlet, I understood how valuable debate was for them. They felt like ambassadors for their country, which motivated them to do well. I have kept in touch with those students, and they have gone on to university and some attend Harvard and MIT.
Early in your career, you had experience as a research consultant at Visayan Forum Foundation, Inc. and the Women’s Legal Bureau. Tell us about your experiences, and how it helped you in achieving success in your career.
At Visayan, my job was to examine the literature available and map the risks and prevalence of trafficking at airports. What gaps exist in airport management systems that allowed people to fall through the regulations? We uncovered instances of corruption at the hands of immigration personnel based on the stories trafficked women shared with us, and our interviews with government agents. My job was to get answers. After generating the data, we made recommendations which informed new measures for the immigration office.
With the Women’s Legal Bureau, I explored plural legal systems in the Philippines. We have large indigenous and Muslim populations and these groups have some legal autonomy over their laws and dispute resolution mechanisms. I investigated how women are treated under those systems.
You were the Director of Policy and Advocacy at Visayan Forum Foundation. What experience stands out to you?
I was the Policy Director for almost 3 years. The organization has done good work in terms of lobbying for structural reforms in improving the rights of domestic workers and fisherfolk. Within my first few months into the job, I was invited to speak at a university class focusing on social work. I was a bit nervous. I prepared a presentation and talked about the anti-trafficking sector, our interventions, and how we can protect women in prostitution and save them. The other speaker was a sex worker. At the beginning of her speech, she was rather hostile and said in Filipino (translated): “I wish before people made generalizations about us and what we need, they would speak to us first.” I wondered why this woman looked like she hated me. I hadn’t done anything to her but recognized the reaction was fair. I made representations about her and spoke for her - without consulting this community. It’s a common pitfall in the development industry. We talk about saving people without asking them if they even want to be saved or if its something else they need. It’s been a lesson that stayed with me in the next few years of my work and it motivated me to pursue a Ph.D.
Describe a typical day.
I don’t recall having a typical day, but my core responsibilities included working with the organization to advise government partners and implement projects ranging from advocacy campaigns to offering at-risk populations direct services. We housed at-risk women and survivors throughout the duration of their legal cases or however long they needed support. I focused on reviewing the data on their cases and profiles. In terms of advocacy work, we petitioned a labor organization in the Philippines to crack down on illegal recruiters and to develop deep-sea fishing laws because male victims were experiencing massive labor exploitation, but are traditionally excluded from support services.
What lessons have you learned from being in a senior leadership position?
When taking on a senior role, it’s always important to be strategic. For example, in hiring I would suggest not being afraid of potential employees who are willing to disagree with us. We should welcome disagreement. We want critical thinkers – not fans. We need people to be able to keep us in check. Also, in a nonprofit setting with limited resources, we cannot do everything, and specialization is key. Form partnerships instead of trying to do everything yourself. But we need to trust our colleagues, and our goals need to align.
Finally, in the nonprofit sector, it’s harder to evaluate the impact of the work. If you work in a corporate setting, then assessing impact is easy because you see how much profit was made relative to the expenses. For nonprofits, the behaviors and circumstances we measure are fuzzier. How do we measure an improvement in the quality of life? Or measure an improvement in access to rights? Our measurements tend to be qualitative. Although these outcomes are difficult to measure, we need to invest in rigorous impact assessments because we need to understand what works and doesn’t work.
What achievements have given you a sense of purpose?
As a debate coach, I had the chance to teach students across Asia, Australia, North America, and Europe, and my former students have done valuable things. They partially credit debate for their success. Some work for nonprofits, some are teachers now, some have become lawyers and engage in substantial pro bono work, and some have become doctors and are invested in improving public health. The debate program helped them recognize structural injustices in the world and understand how they can play a part in making it better.
In the Philippines, I hope my research will intensify the conversation about how traditionally excluded groups need to be involved in the discussion of policies that affect their lives. My nonprofit work has helped mainstream the public discourse on these issues. For years, I kept insisting that women should be included in the policy-making process, and now a formal attempt to include sex workers in consultations is taken seriously. It’s not enough, but it’s a step in the right direction. When I finish my Ph.D., I hope to do more with the knowledge I’ve generated from my interviews, too.
After completing your Ph.D., what career trajectory do you envision for yourself?
I would like to do a combination of nonprofit work and teaching – as a scholar and an activist. I will always want to have space to engage in theoretical reflection but continue to be on the ground and engaged with practical solutions.
What advice might you offer to young women interested in pursuing a Ph.D.?
First, find a topic you care about deeply because it becomes your singular focus for about 4 or more years. Ask yourself whether there are specific gaps in what we know that you see as an opportunity to produce knowledge. When you apply, you should make a case for the project you want to undertake and its significance, and demonstrate it adds value to the discipline and is worthy of admission and funding. You need to show that you have the skills necessary to carry out the research.
Second, choose your university, the department, and especially your advisor, very carefully. Make sure they have expertise in your research area or something closely related. You need to build rapport with your supervisor.
And third, you should be 100% sure a Ph.D. is something you want to do because it can be lonely sometimes. In certain disciplines, like gender studies, it’s not necessarily correlated with higher income levels later on. If you end up taking out a loan or funding yourself, you need to keep that in mind. Passion is important.