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Smoked fish transforms women's lives

Daisy Balingit at work in a smoked fish drying deck in a riverside village of Santa Rita in Olongapo province. The project funded by UNFPA has been touted as one of the small successes of the UN's MDG initiatives in the the impoverished Philippines
Daisy Balingit at work in a smoked fish drying deck in a riverside village of Santa Rita in Olongapo province, Phillipines (Jason Gutierrez/IRIN)

For years, Daisy Balingit and other housewives in Santa Rita, an impoverished riverside village in Olangapo city, north of Manila, were statistically invisible - not enrolled in the social security system, they had no access to basic healthcare and eked out an existence.

She and her husband of 20 years, Zocimo, a market vendor, struggled to send their three children to school.

But thanks to a micro-financing facility established by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Balingit now leads a group of women in a livelihood project fast becoming a lifeline.

"It was a very difficult life. We barely managed and funds were always not enough if you are raising three children," Balingit told IRIN from her riverside house, whose backyard just metres away from the shallow waters serves as the processing yard for smoking salt-water fish, which they pack in clear plastic bags to sell in the local market.

With seed money of about US$850, Balingit and her fellow housewives started buying fish to dry and smoke. The project enabled them to establish the Santa Rita Smoked Fish Vendors' Association, which deals directly with fishermen, eliminating the need for middlemen and trimming production costs.

Today, their group has 14 full-time women members and produces several dozen kilogrammes of smoked fish a day in Balingit's house by the river.

Their initial seed money had grown to a revolving fund of more than $2,000, which members can now tap into or use for healthcare and other services, Balingit said.

first many of us were sceptical that our wives could pull this off.
Many were on the sidelines, uninvolved. But now, most of us have seen
that the project is working, so we do our sharel.

Husbands join in

Husbands have also become involved and members believe relationships have been strengthened as the pressures that come with poverty slowly ease.

"At first many of us were sceptical that our wives could pull this off. Many were on the sidelines, uninvolved. But now, most of us have seen that the project is working, so we do our share," said Zocimo.

Their small brick home remains largely unfinished, with a tattered tarpaulin to protect them from the heat and rain. But the couple says it will soon be completed, "if we work hard and grow this project".

According to Dulce Saret, a Millennium Development Goal advocacy officer with the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the global body hopes to replicate the success of the project elsewhere in the country, where according to the World Bank, approximately 40 percent of the 90 million inhabitants still live on $2 or less per day.

"They are given a sense of managerial competence by allowing them to manage funds in the enterprise," Saret explained.

"In the process, they gain self-esteem and economic independence. We encourage organisations and individuals to make their own contribution to the achievement of the MDGs through projects of this kind," she said.

In its latest mid-term MDG report, the government said it was slowly gaining headway in fighting poverty, with the proportion of the population living below the national poverty line down to 32 percent from 45.3 percent in 1991.

MDG targets

But as the global financial crisis worsens, and many critical sectors are likely to be hit, officials warn that MDG targets will not be met.

In December, Suneeta Mukherjee, UNFPA's country representative, said three MDG goals - two, five and six - were "the least likely to be achieved" by the Philippines.

MDG 2 seeks to ensure that by 2015 children will be able to complete primary schooling, while MDG 5 seeks to reduce by three-quarters the maternal mortality ratio between 1990 and 2015. MDG 6 seeks to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Ten women die daily of "preventable causes" who otherwise could have been saved if they had proper access to pre-natal care. More than half the pregnancies were unwanted and unplanned, and a third ended in abortion, she said.

"This is why the project here in Olangapo is important. It empowers women to take care of themselves," explained Dyezebel Dado, UNFPA's coordinator in Olangapo. "This is something that could be done in other parts of the Philippines, so there is some silver lining on the horizon."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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