Take five: “Access to certain services has been diminishing as a result of public-private partnerships”

Date: Wednesday, February 20, 2019

This story was originally published on UN Women's regional website for Asia and the Pacific.

Gerifel Cerillo. Photo: UN Women/Pairach Homtong
Gerifel Cerillo. Photo: UN Women/Pairach Homtong

Gerifel Cerillo is the coordinator of Tanggol Bavi, the Association of Women Human Rights Defenders in the Philippines. In February 2019 she attended the Regional Civil Society Strategizing Workshop in Bangkok for the 63rd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women and Beijing +25 Review. This year’s CSW is focused on social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure. Cerillo’s organization works mostly with the urban poor in and around Manila, where infrastructure problems place a burden on women.

How does infrastructure impact women’s rights?

Let’s take public transportation as an example, like the commuter trains serving Manila. The majority of commuters are in the informal sector, and that includes a vast majority of women. On a daily basis, these women have to wake up at 4 a.m. in order to make sure the chores are done in time for them to be at the train station by 5 a.m. It takes around an hour to get a place on a train, and then another two hours to get to work by 8 a.m. Then in the evening they do it all again to get back home and take care of the children. The inefficiency of the transportation system hits women harder because of their domestic duties.

Have public-private partnerships helped in addressing this?

This is what the new trains – and higher fares – were supposed to help fix. The promise of public-private partnerships is supposed to be providing efficient and low-cost services, right? In reality, it has actually decreased the access of women to services and made life difficult for them.

The Philippine Government set up a public-private partnership with Chinese and other firms to refurbish the commuter train network. The contractors have been paid billions yet almost none of the work has been done, and the small amount that has been done has been done badly. In fact, when the rolling stock was delivered by the Chinese firm, the gauge did not even fit the tracks! So, it has been put in a storage somewhere. Of course, this was after it was paid for with taxpayers’ money.

There is no accountability mechanism. The Senate has said there will be an investigation, but after media attention died down there has been very little on this. Nobody knows what is happening now.

Is there any role for public-private partnerships in infrastructure and women’s rights then?

I’m a bit skeptical of the private sector role in this context. The trend of private companies is always to put profit first, ahead of the welfare of women, and of people in general. I have not seen anything different here. They still do not take their commitments seriously in terms of empowering women and moving forward with women’s rights. What we have actually seen is a worsening environment for women, in the sense that their access to certain services has been diminishing as a result of public-private partnerships.

If public services must be privatized, then I lean towards greater government control and regulation, or at least some accountability mechanism. Because honestly, from what we have seen of their involvement, at least in the transportation sector, has only been corruption, with no work delivered or any improved efficiency for commuters at all. Only greater cost.

What are you looking to achieve through the CSW 63 preparation process?

My bias is urban poor women. I want to see more attention given to their everyday needs and experiences. I want more attention given to how policies in the name of economic growth have had adverse impacts in their lives and their access to public services.

At the UN level, there have already been debates regarding the effectiveness of public-private partnerships. However, there needs to be more input from the real experiences of urban poor women. There should be a specific recommendation that explicitly says that certain services – such as education, health and yes, probably mass transport as well – should be pushed forward by the Government, at least primarily, and not necessarily by the private sector.

What prompted you to get involved in this area of work, personally?

I was an activist since I was in university, a bit progressive and quite critical. As a student, I bought food from the street stalls and came to know some of the vendors. One of the vendors was 64-year-old lady who had been working for more than 30 years. I asked her about retirement and she replied that in her line of work you do not get to retire, you don’t even have time to get sick! That was the exact moment when the light bulb came on for me, I thought things cannot go on like this; this lady deserves some reprieve from all her hard work as a citizen, as a human, as a woman. I decided then that this was something I wanted to fight for.